Andrew Taylor is the award-winning and best-selling crime fiction author of, perhaps most notably, the Lydmouth series, but he has proved equally skilful at finely wrought, and solidly researched historical fiction, including the 2003 bestseller The American Boy, an unforgettable mystery set in London during the childhood of Edgar Allan Poe. In The Ashes of London, he sets his tale in the city as the flames of the great fire of 1666 are still burning, and brings it to vivid life as the backdrop to a wonderfully cunning murder investigation that makes knowing use of some familiar plot tropes – spirited orphans, cruel aunts, stolen inheritances, rape, murder and mastiffs – and adds a few ingenious surprises of his own.
The novel is narrated from two points of view: the first – in the first person – is a struggling junior clerk James Marwood, there on hand to witness the destruction of St Paul’s cathedral, but when he tries to help a lad who gets too close to the fire he discovers that he is a she, and he has his hand bitten and his cloak stolen for his troubles. The second strand – in third person – follows the adventures of this same girl, who turns out to be Catherine Lovett, the deprived and abused heiress.
What unites the two narrators, and their narrative strands, is the discovery of a murdered man – stabbed and dumped with his thumbs tied together in the cathedral’s ashes – and the fact that both Marwood and Lovett are not only the children of regicides, an unpopular position so soon after the Restoration anyway, but their fathers were also both members of a sect devoutly waiting – and in one case plotting – for the return of King Christ to reclaim his throne from the current incumbent, which was an even more risky business. But this is more than the sins of the father being visited upon the son, or daughter, because Taylor raises some interesting points about the effect on any society dealing with an extremist threat from within.
The plot as it unfolds is hard to describe, not only without spoiling it, but because it is fiendishly tricky. Marwood is suborned by mysterious powers to become a reluctant sleuth to investigate the murders, and, making use of his father’s contacts in what we might today call the regicide community, and he must unpick the interlocking plots not only to discover the identity of the killer, and release the very spirited Lovett from her bind before she can cause herself more trouble, but also the identity of those who would have him seek the truth.
This is terrific stuff: intelligent, engrossing and, in its evocation of the everyday sights and sounds of a long-vanished London, wonderfully plausible. The characters are memorable, too, for different reasons: Catherine Lovett is wonderfully spirited, but also, as a woman, vulnerable to more or less anything, while Marwood’s tentative nature, and the touching concern for his father – who is slightly deranged after his years in prison – proves that although mores may have changed since the 17th century, people are at heart the same as they ever were.
Toby Clements is author of the Kingmaker series. He worked for many years as a journalist and was the literary editor of a national newspaper for ten years before becoming a full-time writer. His first novel, Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims, was shortlisted for the HWA Debut Crown Award.