“All lines converged on the Dragon Yard case and the Fire Court at Clifford’s Inn.” But in Andrew Taylor’s second book in the James Marwood and Cat Lovett series, set in London just after the Great Fire, those lines tangle and twist fiendishly before coming together, writes Frances Owen.
It’s 1667. James Marwood, son of a Fifth Monarchist, is now working for what amounts to Charles II’s Intelligence Service – as well as for William Chiffinch, notorious backstairs intriguer at Court. This makes life complicated enough, but then his father starts talking about a murder in a solicitor’s chamber at Clifford’s Inn which, it’s assumed, he imagined. A day later, the old man dies in what seems, at first, an accident.
Marwood is soon caught by the fall-out of these and other murders and swept into the dark goings-on surrounding the Dragon Yard case, being tried at the Fire Court in Clifford’s Inn, in which two men with rival claims to a plot of land just north of Cheapside in the devastated City of London compete for the lucrative contract to redevelop it.
And once more he meets Cat Lovett, daughter of a regicide, now in hiding not just from those who want revenge on her for her father’s sake, but from her own family, who intend to marry her to a rapist. She’s disguised as Jane Hakesby, an architect’s cousin and maidservant.
It’s a pleasure to watch these two characters fill out and develop. Cat/Jane is still spiky and determined, but her cat-like distrust of people relaxes a little, while Marwood’s guilt over his father and his struggles after being badly injured make it easy to warm to him.
From the first page of The Fire Court you know you’re in safe hands. Look at this, with Marwood’s’s father:
You are like the river, my love, he had told her once, always moving and always the same.
They had been sitting by the Thames in Barnes Wood. She had let down her hair, which was brown but shot through with golden threads that glowed in the sunlight.
She had looked like a whore, with her loose, glorious hair.
He felt a pang of repulsion.
This isn’t just excellent writing, moving from tenderness to distaste in a moment, but the sign of a writer who knows and understands his period. That mixture of lust and disgust with which men – especially puritan men like Marwood senior – regarded women at the time is shown in a few perfectly-chosen words. No more explanation is needed.
Sometimes lyrical, Taylor’s writing can be eloquently spare at moments of great drama or horror, as when Marwood sees a woman’s corpse:
“‘See the calf of the leg, sir?… Looks like fox to me. What do you think?’
“For a moment I lowered the cloth that covered my nostrils and mouth. ‘Perhaps.’”
Red, yellow, grey and black, the colours of fire and its aftermath, are woven through this book, which sometimes teases, sometimes assaults the senses with rich, but easily-digested descriptions:
As we drew level with St Dunstan-in-the-West, I threw a glance up the alley leading to the Inn. The gate was open. Beyond it was the stunted south court and the door of the hall. It seemed to me that there was something secretive about Clifford’s Inn, about its untidy, close-packed huddle of buildings: it set itself apart from the world, drawing in its skirts like a prudish lady from the common crowds of Fleet Street.
This is a tightly-plotted book, not afraid to vary the pace and let readers pause to orient themselves in the filth- and rubble-strewn, dangerous streets. Taylor knows his 17th-century London, and guides us vividly through it.
You don’t need to, but as a geek I read it with some of my favourite maps open: Faithorne & Newcourt‘s of 1658 to place ‘Dragon Yard’; and Hollar’s London after the Fire (1667) and Ogilby and Morgan’s 1676 map of the rebuilt City, both showing Clifford’s Inn.
The ending left dangling threads which Taylor is clearly going to knot together, but not yet, since this is a series. The third book is published in a few weeks. If it’s as entertaining and intelligent as The Fire Court, it’s going to feel like a long wait.
The King’s Evil, the third title in the Marwood-Lovett series, will be published on 4 April 2019.
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Frances Owen is editor of Historia.