This is the second installment of a historical crime fiction series set in 1660s London. The first book began in September 1666, during London’s Great Fire. This second novel takes place eight months after the first, in 1667.
In this book we learn about the Fire Court, which was created by the British Parliament to resolve disputes arising from the 1666 Great Fire of London. Who was responsible for the rebuilding costs: the landlords or tenants? Who would be awarded contracts to rebuild, and on what basis? The Fire Court was given exceptional powers to settle all such disputes, and because of this, the possibilities for bribery and corruption were manifold.
James Marwood, the fictional protagonist, worked in the service of two [actual historical] masters. One was William Chiffinch, Keeper of the King’s Private Closet. Chiffinch was the closest of all King Charles II’s advisors and his influence at court was said to have been incalculable. Chiffinch called upon Marwood to investigate dicey matters that happened in London and in which the king was taking an interest.
The second was Joseph Williamson, Undersecretary to Lord Arlington, Secretary of State for the South and one of the King’s most powerful ministers. Williamson, who also figures largely in this series, is said to have made himself indispensable to Arlington, due to his enormous capacity for hard work, much of which is done by the fictional Marwood. Williamson was also involved with the foundation of the London Gazette in 1665; Marwood handles many of the Gazette duties as well.
Marwood, increasingly caught between the sometimes competing demands of the two ambitious and powerful men, observed:
“There are no friends at Whitehall. [The Palace of Whitehall was the main residence of the English monarchs from 1530 until 1698.] Only allies and enemies. Among the great, power ebbs and flows according to their conjunctions and oppositions. And the rest of us are tossed about in the current, helpless to direct our course, let alone navigate our way to safety.”
Marwood was asked to look into a murder that seemed related to a case due to come before the Fire Court, a competition to develop Dragon Yard, which remains a popular residential and commercial area in London to this day. Two entrepreneurs were competing for the contract to redevelop the area after the fire, and both had influential friends and enemies. Catherine Lovett, an acquaintance of Marwood’s, also became involved because her employer, Simon Hakesby, was representing one of the parties in the matter. Cat and Marwood seemed fated to be drawn together, and once again collaborated in ferreting out what was going on as more bodies start piling up.
As before, Marwood understood that he took orders from people “who preferred not know precisely how their wishes were carried out, especially beforehand . . . .”
Evaluation: This series has much to offer in terms of interesting historical details as well as some page-turning tense and dangerous moments for the characters. I don’t believe the books do well as standalones, but it is an entertaining series, and worth reading in order.
Published by HarperCollins, 2018