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My cold weather reading: ‘After the Fire’ and ‘Those Who Know’

Pilk 51p9eUIXJ9LHere in the North West, we’ve had a sudden change of the weather from tropical to arctic, meaning my lockdown walks have been replaced by staying inside with a good book. Now my most recent novel is done, I’ve been able to let go of research reading, and read for my own pleasure.

My latest novel, Entertaining Mr Pepys, was set in the world of the 17th Century theatre, and whilst writing it I would never have read this book, ‘After the Fire’ , because it is set in a similar time and place, and I’d fear some of John Pilkington’s  world seeping into mine. But now my final Pepys book is out and done with, I can indulge my passion for all things 17th Century.

After the Fire by John Pilkington is a murder mystery that introduces us the the character of actress Betsy Brand, and she is a great character to root for. Impetuous yet astute, she is not afraid to enter the worst rookeries of Restoration London, or to confront danger when it arises. She is ably assisted by her doctor friend, Tom Catlin, who refers to her as ‘Mistress Rummager,’ and though sceptical initially about her sleuthing abilities, is able to make sense of the deaths, and throw light on what kind of poison might be employed. Their relationship is interesting, as she is the dominant character despite her lower status.

The plot hinges on events that happened during the Great Fire of London (hence the title), and just when you think the evil perpetrator has had his come-uppance, we find he is in fact part of a bigger conspiracy. The book is extremely well-researched with a wealth of historical detail. What better place for a murder to happen then during Shakespeare’s most notorious and murder-strewn play, Macbeth? This is rollicking good fun, and will appeal to both fans of historical fiction and mystery lovers.

After the Fire

Blurb: Before Jack the Ripper, there was the Salamander.
London, 1670. The Great Fire is all burned out. Now the city lies in ruins and a series of chilling murders is playing out on the London stage.
Betsy Brand is an actress performing in Macbeth at the new Dorset Gardens Theatre. Every night she watches Joseph Rigg, the company’s most dazzling talent, in the throes of death as Banquo. Until one night he stops playing.

Betsy watches in horror as Rigg collapses mid-performance, poisoned. London’s theatre world turns upside down as more deaths follow. The authorities are baffled. But Betsy is determined to get to the bottom of it all, even if it means solving the case herself.

Betsy hears rumours that a shadowy figure called the Salamander has returned. He had haunted London during the Great Fire and now he is wreaking revenge on his enemies. But her foe is more cunning than Macbeth himself. And time is running out. Can she unmask the killer before she becomes his next victim?

Alis 41ACoLB0rzLThose Who Know by Alis Hawkins

The other novel I have enjoyed this week is the third of a series, and I loved the other two, so couldn’t wait for this one to come out. I’ve been following the adventures of Harry Probert-Lloyd and his able assistant John Davies, and they are always a delight. Partly it is the two men’s voices – the posh self-deprecating Harry versus the much more down-to-earth wit of John, who is always trying to save Harry from himself.

Harry is partially-sighted, so John acts as his eyes. At the same time Harry acts as a kind of benefactor to John, who has ambitions to be a solicitor, but was born much lower in the pecking order.

After a school teacher falls out of his loft there is suspicion of foul play, and Harry is left to contemplate the verdict. Of course there are many who might have wanted to do the deed, and it all takes some unravelling. A man is convicted, but Harry is not convinced they have the right man. Adding to the difficulty is the forthcoming election for Coroner, where Mr Minnever the local Liberal wants Harry to canvas more actively to retain his post, thus involving him in politics which he could well do without. Naturally it is critical Harry should win the vote for re-election, not least so that John can remain in post, but his need to try to gain votes is constantly crashing up against what he needs to do to see justice done. There is also the complication of two women, Miss Gwatkyn the local lady of the manor, and Lydia Howell, recently employed as secretary to Harry, both of whom refuse to remain in the subservient roles Harry expects, not to mention the local doctor who is keen on dissecting any corpse that might come his way, to the horror of Victorian polite society.

This was a great book, and one that lived up to the previous two and more. Complex and interesting, with a well-drawn sense of time and place, and characters you can really get to know. I heartily recommend.

Those Who Know

Blurb:

Harry Probert-Lloyd has inherited the estate of Glanteifi and appointed his assistant John as under-steward. But his true vocation, to be coroner, is under threat. Against his natural instincts, Harry must campaign if he is to be voted as coroner permanently by the local people and politicking is not his strength.
On the hustings, Harry and John are called to examine the body of Nicholas Rowland, a radical and pioneering schoolteacher whose death may not be the accident it first appeared. What was Rowland’s real relationship with his eccentric patron, Miss Gwatkyn? And why does Harry’s rival for the post of coroner deny knowing him? Harry’s determination to uncover the truth threatens to undermine both his campaign and his future.

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Publication Day for Pleasing Mr Pepys – Read an extract!

pleasing mr pepysPublication Day Pleasing Mr Pepys

I’m delighted to announce that Pleasing Mr Pepys is out today with Accent Press. In years gone by, when there were far less books produced, and all of them physical copies, publishing a book was a much more unique and celebrated event. Now there are thousands of e-books released every day and we have a new information age which is transforming the way we find and digest information.

But the beauty of books is that, like people, each one is unique. There is no other book that re-imagines the story of the events in Pepys’ famous diary from the point of view of Deb Willet, the maid he fell in love with. My portrayal of her is different from the Radio and TV interpretations which lost sight of the fact that she was very well-educated. I have given her a vibrant life which takes place both within the confines of the diary and within my imagination – a life that involves espionage, double-dealing, and treason.

I started the novel in 2013, so it is a joy to finally hold a copy in my hands.

The book has three women from Pepys’s diary as major point of view characters – Deb the maidservant, Elisabeth Pepys (wife of the famous diarist) and Abigail Williams, an actress who is mistress to Lord Bruncker and despised by Elisabeth. Here’s the first chapter to give you a flavour of Abigail.

 

Pleasing Mr Pepys

Chapter 1

September 1667

A metallic rattle – the key in the lock. Abigail Williams stiffened her spine as the draught from the downstairs door and the stink of the Fleet River blew round her ankles. Harrington closed the door and she heard him scratch the flint to light the wall sconces. Lighting up time already. It had been daylight when she had broken into his house. With one hand, she held her skirts closer to her thighs; with the other, she gripped the flat-bladed knife – a small weapon, but the edge sharpened razor-thin. She pressed back against the wall behind the door as the light from the hall flickered across her kidskin shoes.

Harrington’s footsteps lumbered up the stairs, his breathing laboured. She tightened her hold on the knife, preparing herself. These breaths would be his last. She found death harder to bear than she used to, now she had seen so much suffering – the plague years, the fire. Oddly, Harrington paused on the threshold of the room, as if he could sense her waiting presence. Through the crack of the open door she saw him standing motionless, his steeple hat a silhouette in the wavering light, his head cocked, listening.

He was an old hand, like her. She repressed a flash of compassion, the foolish urge to call out, to warn him. But then his dark back came through the door and he stepped in front of her, and without even thinking she moved like quicksilver. The knife slid easily across the side of his neck. With the other hand she pushed as hard as she could. He tried to turn, but it was too late, he was already falling, clutching his collar, blood slippery over his hands, hat rolling away under the table.

Experience told Abigail it had been enough. She ran, hoisting up her skirts, down the stairs, flinging the front door open, out into the cramped back alley. Nobody followed her; the passage to Fleet Street was empty. A brownish fog wreathed around her hem. When she finally slowed, she took a rag from inside her sleeve and wiped her blade, wrapped it, and stowed it in the pocket hanging next to her petticoats. She put a hand up to the bare skin at her chest, feeling the hot rise and fall of her collarbone.

She emerged onto the main thoroughfare where the houses were lit with torches, and walked, heart thudding, down towards the King’s playhouse. Arriving at the theatre, she saw Lord Bruncker’s carriage was where he had left it, across the road. His coachman was leaning against the wall, a smoking pipe in his mouth, waiting. She didn’t want to go in the front way – someone might ask why she was late – so instead she made for the tiring house behind.

The stage doorman knew her and nodded to her as she entered. The dressing room was empty, the actors ready to enter by the shutters for act two. From there, the audience sounded like the sea, the swell of all those voices. She checked her face and the satin of her dress for stains: a few dark spots on her sleeve, easily explained away.

Only now did she begin to shake. It was always like this: afterwards the weakness, nausea and trembling would set in. The moment when she wished she could turn back the day, the moment when she remembered their eyes, hollow with their unspoken question. Why?

Legs as unsteady as a newborn calf, she paused, leaned heavily on the trestle table, took out a phial of camphor from her pocket and inhaled. Better.

She arranged her face into a smile. Her performance for Lord Bruncker was about to begin. Her petticoat rustled against the boards as she went along the corridor and up the stairs into the box. On the way she almost bumped into Mr Pepys hurrying up the same stairs with a supply of nuts and oranges.

‘For Elisabeth,’ he said, obviously feeling the need to apologise for the sheer number of squashed bags hugged to his chest.

She nodded and stood aside, lowering her eyes to avoid his conversation. He could talk the baggage off a donkey. To her relief, he squeezed past and hurried into his own box further along the row.

When she got to her own, the candelabra had been lit, and upon her arrival Lord Bruncker drew out the chair so that she could sit.

‘Ah, there you are,’ he whispered. ‘You’re late. You missed the first act.’

She shook her head. ‘The traffic through town—’

‘Hush, they’re about to start again. Have a confit.’

She reached out her hand and smiled, took a marchpane cherry, but dropped it under her seat as soon as Lord Bruncker turned back to look at the stage. She was glad his attention was diverted, so he did not notice her pallid face or that she could not swallow.

The actor who had just entered rapped three times for silence, his face ghoulish from the footlights, which smoked in their holders. The hubbub fell to a hush. But Abigail’s thoughts would not lie quiet; she was thinking of Harrington, of how long it would be before they found him.

He should have listened to Piet. Then his mouth wouldn’t have had to be shut the hard way. She’d liked him, but in her business, liking was a luxury she was ill able to afford.

*****

Samuel_Pepys

You can buy the book here on Amazon in the UK or in the US , Waterstones, Guardian Bookshop or your local bookseller.

Deb Willet, Elizabeth Pepys’s maid and the object of Samuel Pepys’s attentions, is finally given centre-stage after 350 years, and her tale was worth waiting for. This is exceptional story-telling. L. C. Tyler author of the Historical John Grey Mysteries

Laced with emotional intensity and drama. Reader’s Favorite

The first chapter will suck you right in immediately; there is drama and intensity…before you even know who these characters are! I was hooked!  The Maiden’s Court Blog

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Blog Reviews Seventeenth Century Life

Three great books on The Great Fire of London

Rebecca Rideal – 1666 Plague, War and Hellfire

Plague War Hellfire

For most of my research books I prefer hard copy, and this is a brilliantly and evocatively written hardback, beautifully produced.

Here’s are some of the the opening sentences to whet your appetite:

‘Pale winter sun brought the dawn. Casting a mottled-grey glow on glazed windows and icy puddles, it offered light but little warmth. London was a month into a deep frost. Across the capital people woke to clanging church bells and the hubbub of the streets: barking dogs, clattering carts calling pigeons and chattering early risers.’

Written in three distinct sections covering the War with the Dutch, the Plague and the Fire, it is written chronologically beginning with the explosion of the ship, the London and ending with the Fire.  Lavishly illustrated with colour photographs and peopled by contemporary accounts, this is an account full of the vigour of the changing times. Just get it – I can’t recommend it highly enough.

 

Ashes LondonAshes of London by Andrew Taylor

Ashes of London is a murder mystery set in the burnt-out remains after the Great Fire. The opening chapter is a tour-de-force. We accompany James Marwood as he watches in amazement and horror as the edifice of St Paul’s Cathedral, the biggest landmark in seventeenth century London, burns before his eyes. He is spurred into action when he sees a young boy try to run into the flaming building. When he throws his cloak over him, he discovers the boy is actually a young woman, but before he can find out more, she runs off taking the cloak with her.

Who is she, and why was she taking such a risk? Later Marwood suspects she may have known something about a body, found in the smouldering remains – a man stabbed to death, with his thumbs tied behind his back.

The Ashes of London is about the search for these answers. Told in chapters alternating points of view between Marwood, and the young woman, Cat Lovett, we learn how little London has settled after the tumultuous events of the beheading of Charles I and the restoration of his son to the throne. The novel deals withn the fact that there is still a royal search for the regicides responsible for the execution, and particularly for the actual executioner himself.

If I have one criticism of the novel, it is that Marwood himself is rather passive; though I can see why – Cat is a vengeful and active protagonist, and two of those in one novel might have been excessive! However it does make for rather slow going in the middle of the novel. Persevere though, because the climax of the novel is another wonderful set piece and well worth waiting for. As a fly-on-the-wall re-imagining of seeing London go up in flames this is superb.

Permission HeavenBy Permission of Heaven – Adrian Tinniswood

As a novelist, I love the specifics – small details of time and place that are often overlooked in the tellings of history. Adrian Tinniswood gives me this is spades, in his book about the Fire of London. From the particulars of the evil portents, to the bungling attempts to control the spread of the flames, this is a close examination of the week that saw the end of Tudor London’s half-timbered houses and jettied windows, to be replaced with Wren’s elegant stone.

One of the things I liked was the use of maps at the start of the chapters to show the spread of the fire, and the extensive descriptions of fire equipment – the billhooks for pulling down hoses, the fire ‘machines’ that proved ineffectual against such a blaze.

The aftermath is also particularly well covered. More than 13,o00 houses were desroyed, innumerable churches and public buildings, leaving London economically impoverished, and half the population as refugees in Moorfields or other open spaces. Do get the paperback rather than an ebook, you’ll want to refer to it over and over.

Fire

Still on my list, is CC Humphey’s ‘Fire’.  And via Twitter, I’ve just heard of another – ‘The Prospect of This City’ by Eamonn Griffin. And if you have had enough of all this destruction , do try The Phoenix by Leo Hollis, which I really enjoyed and tells of the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire.

So why all the interest? My third book in the Pepys series (still in the research phase) takes place during the Great Fire, but is scheduled for publication in 2019, so do enjoy these whilst you wait!

 

PhoenixProspect