September 1666. In the unnatural darkness and oppressive heat of a London ablaze, a young man watches awestruck as St. Paul’s Cathedral, icon of the city and hitherto believed to be protected by divine influence, succumbs to the flames. All of a sudden, a boy breaks away from the crowd and runs frantically towards the burning edifice. Yet even the rats have deserted it, so who, or what, is he so desperate to reach inside that he’ll risk almost certain death? So begins a marvellous mystery that grows and grows in complexity even as the flames are dying.
Before long a body is discovered – and it won’t be the last. The murder has been carried out in a very precise way, and in an enigmatic twist the thumbs have been tied together behind the victim’s back. Clearly the killer intends to send a message to whoever finds the body; unfortunately, no-one has any idea what he or she is trying to convey. This being the seventeenth century almost everyone is driven by religious or political passions, some of which are more dangerous to wear on your sleeve than others. The restoration of the monarchy may have returned the nation to something resembling normality after Cromwell’s rule, but subversive religious ideologies and treasonous political movements have simply disappeared underground, and it soon becomes clear there’s much more at stake than just bringing a murderer to justice.
The man charged with unravelling the mystery is the young gentleman we met right at the start as he witnessed St. Paul’s last moments. His name is James Marwood, an unassuming man with a very junior administrative job at Whitehall, and it’s with some reluctance that he’s drawn into his employers’ investigations. James’ nervousness is compounded by the fact that his father – still alive but elderly and in a fragile state both physically and mentally – was an ardent supporter of the movement that culminated in the execution of Charles I; although many Parliamentarian sympathisers have been shown a degree of clemency by the new King, those most closely involved with the regicide are still being hunted down. As a result, Marwood is constantly walking a precarious path: to hide information from his Whitehall masters would call his own loyalty into question, but to uncover too much could place his father and his former friends in jeopardy.
While James struggles with the task at hand, we meet another character who it turns out is on a mission of her own. Cat’s father, like Marwood’s, also has a dark political past, but he’s long since vanished and his daughter is desperate to find him. She’s also in a sticky situation herself, being under the guardianship of a callous uncle who’s determined to marry her off to an effeminate weasel of a man whom she finds utterly repellent. Forced into an impossible situation by her ghastly relations Cat becomes a fugitive just as her father did – and who is hired to track her down but James Marwood himself.
I had a hunch I was going to love this book and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a period of history that I find fascinating anyway, but this novel made me want to go and find out more about the religious complexities of this post-Civil War era. A setting such as this, when people were living in hiding or under assumed names in order to disguise their political sensibilities, is the perfect backdrop for a crime story – the fun isn’t just about unmasking a murderer, it’s about who is going to turn out to be on whose side. When it comes to creating heroes and villains, the author is incredibly skilful. There are a few heart-in-mouth moments when the particularly vile characters seem to be gaining the upper hand, and you’ll be rooting for some of the other characters with equal fervour. Yet it never becomes a pantomime: the nuanced characterisation is far too clever for that. In many respects this reminded me of C J Sansom’s Shardlake series, which is a huge compliment as I absolutely love those books. The quality of the writing, the pitch-perfect balance between history and mystery and above all the well-rounded characters put “The Ashes of London” right up there with the best historical fiction. There is a tiny hint at the end of the novel (I think, although it could be wishful thinking!) that James Marwood may well be called upon to solve more crimes in the future. I’m hoping that this is Andrew Taylor’s promise of further books in the series; I can certainly see myself devouring more quite happily. It’s a massive thumbs up from me for this one!