Note: There are necessarily spoilers for previous books in this series.
The third book in this historical crime fiction series is again set in 1660s London. The first book began in September 1666, during London’s Great Fire. The second book was set eight months later, and this one shortly thereafter. London is still recovering from the Great Fire, and the city is surrounded by refugee camps of dubious sanitary quality. The city itself isn’t much better. Moreover, many children are afflicted with scrofula, a common disease in that era. Scrofula, which presents as lumps on the neck, is a condition in which the bacteria responsible for tuberculosis causes symptoms outside the lungs, including inflamed and irritated lymph nodes in the neck. As the website Healthline points out:
“Historically, scrofula was called the ‘king’s evil.’ Until the 18th century, doctors thought the only way to cure the disease was to be touched by a member of a royal family.”
At that time, both the kings and queens of England and the kings of France claimed the divine gift (divinitus) to cure by touching or stroking the diseased. Modern scholars believe that the practice most likely originated in France with Saint Louis IX (r. 1226–1270). The fact is, the disease often went into remission on its own, giving the impression the touch of the monarch had cured it. This choice of disease to “cure” by monarchs was supremely clever; it helped bolster belief that the sovereign had been appointed by God. Thus, those afflicted with scrofula sought an audience with the king or queen to receive a laying on of hands.
The frequency of the use of the ritual reached its climax during the reign of Charles II (1660-1685) who plays a major role in this book series, as do his healing rituals for scrofula. The King is not merely in the background, but rises to the level of a supporting character.
The main cast consists of James Marwood, a government employee, and Catherine “Cat” Lovett. They got to know each other in part because both were the offspring of men involved in the Fifth Monarchists plot. This was a regicidal movement perpetrated by an extremist Puritan sect which wanted to rid the world of earthly kings and bring on the rule of Christ, as predicted, so they believed, in the Book of Daniel.
Now both fathers are dead but James and Cat remain in contact, usually involuntarily. That is, Cat gets accused of crimes and James gets assigned to find her and resolve the crimes. In this book, Edward Alderley is found dead in a well in the mansion of Lord Clarendon. Cat hated Edward; he had tormented and raped her. She was known to have been at Clarendon’s estate, because as an architect’s assistant, she was helping to redesign the grounds of the mansion. Thus she had means and motive. James wanted to protect her, but he also wanted to know the truth of what happened.
His task was complicated because Lord Clarendon had powerful enemies in the struggle for the king’s favor; any of them could have been involved in the murder to make Clarendon look bad. There were also some documents missing from Clarendon’s property that could affect the succession to the throne. Clearly, it is crucial that they be found. Somehow, everyone is counting on Marwood to figure it all out without getting killed himself.
And there is more: Marwood and Cat also need to figure out how they feel about each other.
Evaluation: The story in this book may seem a bit confusing if read as a standalone rather than following the first two thrillers in the series. As with the other books, there is a great deal of fascinating historical information woven into the story. I always enjoy murder mysteries that teach me something in addition to providing a page-turning diversion.
Published by HarperCollins, 2019