Note: There are necessarily spoilers for previous books in this series.
This is the fourth novel in this historical crime fiction series 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 the third one shortly thereafter. This one begins in January 1668, eighteen months after the fire.
At this time in [actual] history, a duel was fought between the Earl of Shrewsbury and the Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham was having an affair with Shrewsbury’s wife, and the two men were political rivals as well. James Marwood, one of the central characters of the series, is asked to witness the duel surreptitiously by his employer, the historical figure Joseph Williamson, Undersecretary to Lord Arlington, Secretary of State for the South and one of the King’s most powerful ministers. Marwood is noticed, however, by one of the Duke of Buckingham’s men, which puts him in danger, all the more so because one of the duel’s seconds was killed, and Shrewsbury himself suffered a wound.
Taylor delves into medical practices of the day to describe the efforts to heal Shrewsbury. At first he was bled by leeches, and then he was treated by dead pigeons, “considered one of the last remedies at a doctor’s disposal.” As Taylor describes the procedure:
“Live birds were brought into the sickroom. Their necks were wrung and, while they were still warm, their breasts were slit open and applied to the patient’s skin, usually to the soles of the feet.”
[A nice post on the history of using pigeons for cures at this time can be found here. One must be grateful anew for the invention of penicillin.]
A parallel plot concerns the other main protagonist, Catherine “Cat” Lovett, now married to Simon Hakesby, a man old enough to be her grandfather, and an architect in the employ of Christopher Wren. Cat is approached by Elizabeth Cromwell, granddaughter of Oliver Cromwell and eldest child of Richard, the last Protector. Richard has returned to London from exile to retrieve a package hidden for him by his late mother, and Elizabeth asked for Cat’s help in getting it. Cat would have declined, but her husband is in thrall of both Elizabeth and her father, and insists that he and Cat will assist them, to their mortal peril, especially when they find out that the Duke of Buckingham was involved in the matter also.
The Duke of Buckingham was playing with fire: while he was seen as a valuable ally to King Charles II, he also hedged his bets by showing himself to be a friend to religious dissenters, including those who had traitorously supported the Cromwells.
As in the previous books, James and Cat find themselves working together to get themselves out of trouble while avoiding the vengeance of their respective masters. A surprise ending results in a bit of a rapprochement for James and Cat, although they still have a number of rather large misconceptions about each other.
Evaluation: The politics of the time can be a bit confusing to follow as all the intrigue and double-dealing that actually happened can make a person dizzy. Nevertheless it is also fascinating, as are the historical details. I especially enjoyed the author’s description of “a violent, mysterious game which involved the possession of an inflated pig’s bladder.” Some things never change….
Published by HarperCollins, 2020