“A Conspiracy of Violence” by Susanna Gregory – review

When you read a book you love AND it’s the first of a long series, it’s a double-whammy of reading joy.  I’m very late to the party with the Thomas Chaloner series (of which this novel marks the beginning) but better late than never.  Of course, being a latecomer to a literary saga brings with it the benefit of having a number of books already written, so you can instantly feed your new obsession by reading several instalments in a row – which I might just be doing in this case.  I can’t take any credit for this discovery myself, however, as it was recommended to me by author and fellow blogger Bernadette Keeling, who’s read some of my reviews and therefore knows my taste pretty well!

It’s set in one of my favourite periods of history, the seventeenth century, not long after the monarchy has been restored to power with the accession of Charles II.  Forget the Tudors – this has got to be one of the most fascinating tines in our nation’s past.  Many who had supported Cromwell and his puritan leanings were dismayed to see a return to licentious behaviour as demonstrated by the new king and his flamboyant court; others were delighted to see the back of the Parliamentarian zealots who had manufactured Charles I’s death.  And some, like a number of characters in this story, were people who were just trying to survive, and who were prepared to bury old allegiances for the sake of staying on the right side of the victors.  The novel’s hero, Thomas Chaloner, is used to leading a double, or at times even a triple, life; when the story begins he has just returned from the Netherlands where he’s been working as a spy.  Political changes mean his role is no longer needed, but coming from a family that included a regicide (in the shape of his uncle) is rather a large stumbling block to employment in Restoration England.  Luckily for him there’s more than one ex-spymaster kicking his heels in 1660s London, and before too long Thomas’ caseload is mounting up, including an intriguing mission on behalf of the Earl of Clarendon to find a cache of gold supposedly hidden inside the Tower of London but never yet found.

When I start reading any new historical crime series my first instinct is to compare it to C J Sansom’s magnificent Shardlake books.  If you’re going to write a series of stories featuring a recurring central character then they need to be something special, and the characterisation in those novels is extraordinary.  If similar books in that genre fall down, it’s often I think because the protagonist, although perfectly likeable, just isn’t captivating enough.  At first I feared that might be the case with Thomas Chaloner, as it took me quite a while to really feel I knew him.  My relationship with him undoubtedly deepened as the book went on however, and by the end I was interested in his personal story as well as the outcomes of the various mysteries, and that’s a definite big tick in the book’s favour.  In fact, considering just how many key characters there are in this story I was really impressed by how well Susanna Gregory managed to flesh them out and create genuine interest in their often complex backstories.  I particularly loved Metje, Thomas’ fiery yet vulnerable Dutch mistress, who finds life increasingly difficult in a city where paranoid xenophobia is on the rise every day.  John Thurloe too is intriguing from first introduction, being Cromwell’s former Spymaster General who is now working for… underground Parliamentarians? The resurgent Royalists?  Or maybe both?  In this novel as in life, very few people wear their heart unequivocally on their sleeve, and most keep us in the dark about their true loyalties and motivations until the final pages.

The main difficulty for me came in the first two or three chapters; the political situation is so complex, the characters so numerous and their allegiances so complicated that to start with there’s quite a lot of exposition that results in some clunky and contrived dialogue.  I also struggled to remember who was working for whom in this world of subterfuge and had to do a fair bit of flicking back to read certain paragraphs again as a reminder.  After this slightly ropey early section though the plot started to take care of itself without constant explanation and the book really took off.  More than anything else, what stayed with me was what an incredibly lonely place England could be at that time.  Families and individuals whose political beliefs meant they were in the ascendancy only a few years earlier suddenly found themselves at best shunned and at worst in danger following the abrupt switch in regime.  As I said earlier in the review, I find this one of the most absorbing periods in history, and it’s to her great credit that the author really digs deep into not only political but social history, enabling us to appreciate the infinite nuances of this time of great upheaval as it would have played out in the lives of ordinary people.

I’m really looking forward to reading more of this series (at the time of writing I believe there are eight instalments, hooray!) and adding another historical fiction writer to my bookshelves.  And now that I’ve clambered back onto the reading treadmill after a bit of a hiatus, I hope to have more reviews for you very soon.

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