Thomas Chaloner ventures wearily into post-Commonwealth England once more to keep the buffoonery of the Court and Whitehall safe from the murderous intent of a man known only as Falcon - a master of disguise and a source of overwhelming rife speculation as to his exploits and motives. The Sinon Plot to steal the glass-baubled Crown Jewels is foiled but the fallout from the plot threatens to send the Dutch and English to war, holds most of the nefarious nobles of Charles II's court to blackmail and drives Thomas into no-man's land where all sides think him a traitor.
Not a good day, you might think.
Not necessarily so...we do open with his marriage to Hannah. A joyful occasion literally punctured by a knife in the back of a ex-spy and a storm of hail through St Mary's roof. Matrimony sits uncomfortably with Chaloner. He freely admits he has nothing in common with his effervescent and honourable lady-in-waitng wife yet his desire to keep her safe sees her bundled first to Rev. Thompson's abode, thence to somewhere utterly unknown under Thurloe's watchful eye as Thomas finds himself assualted and running from would-be assassins. Everyone's out to get him: Ruyven, the embitterered Dutchman who lost the hand of Tom's first wife, Aletta, to his rival a decade ago. Spymaster Williamson...as usual whose own incarceration of the Sinon Plotters into Calais - the deepest part of Newgate prison - proves not quite as secure as he believes. Kicke and Nisbett - a couple of petty courtier thieves whom Thomas catches redhanded within the opening few pages stealing from the Court. Downing - Tom's ex-pay master who believes Chaloner is trying to blackmail him.
Amidst it all Clarendon - a man who utterly depends on Tom but treats him very poorly - has a task for him to retrieve some Privy Council Papers and find out who has murdered Willem Hanse - Tom's ex-wife's brother-in-law (Willem is the titular character who takes an unfortunately permanent bath in the Thames in the opening pages). Surgeon Wiseman needs Tom to restore his relationship with Temperance and help him out when yet another conspirator dies post-amputation. Buteel - a fussy little clerk but one I quite like - is trying to gain court etiquette with his cousin down to visit. Hannah's brother turns out to be a pregant sister. Lady Castlemaine is having trouble converting the Queen's religious clothing into lewd undergarments...the list goes on and on. Problems abound for Tom (who I note seems to have lost his limp in this novel because he's able to race around with some alacrity this time. No bad thing given the amount of pursuance he has to undergo) on a personal, familial, historical and political basis. Quite frankly he'd be better off leaving London for a while as Buteel urges him. Trouble is, he promised Jacoba - Hanse's widow - and the rest of the Dutch delegation right at the start that he would find the culprit. What he unearths is a mire of blackmail, corruption and deadly murder. As he morosely observes to himself: "wild flights of fancy were not going to help him catch one of the most elusive criminals he had ever encountered" and Gregory backs this storm of investigation up after half of the issues are revealed by reminding the reader that Chaloner's life consists of "thinking of all he had to do that day - confront Jun, visit the Devil tavern, ensure his messges to White and Fairfax had been delivered. And that was before he turned his attention to unmasking Falcon, and assessing whether Ruyven and Jacoba's affair had a bearing on Hanse's death."
I admire Gregory. Her depth of knowledge about the period brings Restoration London to life. The dank, fetid smell, the dark alleys, the bright colour of Court, the humility and pain of life in London is vividly drawn on a strong undercurrent of sinister effluent. Her prose style is crisp, we spend much of it inside Chaloner's questing, ever alert mind. We feel his weariness, his confusion at times, his inexorable desire to find the truth and eternal patience with those all around him. By nature he is diffident, a loner struggling to connect socially with others. Yet his ability to attract intense loyalty amongst like-minded people enables him to puzzle out the truth amongst the inevitable pattern of lies and deceit.
Gregory is one of the finest murder thriller writers out there. Her novels are a must-read and, quite frankly, the TV doesn't even get turned on when a new Bartholomew or Chaloner mystery is on the shelves.
It's rare I'd give any current author six stars if I could, but Gregory would be one of the very few.