Susanna Gregory prologues her seventh Thomas Chaloner murder mystery in Tangiers with the fateful charge of Colonel Teviot up a hill that leads to the death of five hundred of England's finest. Problem is, the charge wasn't quite so fateful given the false scouting information given by Harley, Newell and Reyner - members of the Piccadilly Company, who are dealing in illegal trading of a lot of gravel and glassware. Of course, gravel and glassware doesn't quite prove to be the commodity that has the foppish courts of Charles II split into the warring merchants and Thomas quickly finds himself tasked with four matters to uncover. Firstly, Clarendon wants him to find who has been pilfering the bricks he needs to build his new palatial mansion; secondly, he is charged by Clarendon's wife, Frances to discover why Cave was murdered by Eliot in a fight in Piccadilly in the opening pages of the book; thirdly, to uncover the culprit putting letters in the Queen's private boudoir implicating her in a plot to kill Pratt, the architect designing Clarendon's new abode; and fourthly, why Teviot was send to his death in Tangiers. What makes it tricky is his somewhat selfish employer who thinks his bricks are the priority whilst the obvious attempts to push England and Portugal into war are clearly of wider import to both Thomas and Thurloe.
Thrown into Ms Gregory's inevitable mix are the likes of Margareta and Janzoon, ambassadors from Holland whose poor grasp of the English language leads to unfortunate mispronouncements that gradually raise the offence and ire of the Court. We have the dastardly privateer, Fitzgerald - a man whom even Thurloe fears - who leads the Piccadilly Company with his motley crew of henchmen directed by the openly murderous Brinkes. Tom also struggles to solve the missing bricks coming up short against Clarendon's arrogant son, Hyde, the foreman Oliver and the lax guards represented by Wright. And as for the fight between Cave and Eliot...well there is the addled wife Ruth, uncertainty over burials, and an overly helpful Lester to contend with.
No wonder Tom's head is spinning and he spends much of the novel frustrated, needing the paternal guidance of Thurloe to steady him. As ever with the author, all four threads entwine, the clues to solving each are there and we move in a society where the boundary between dockyard thuggery of Fitzgerald mingles dangerously with the nouveau riche of Kitty O'Brien and her husband. Of course, the ever present voluptuous Lady Castlemaine and the Duke of Buckingham provide amusing asides whilst Tom struggles in his relationship with his wife, Hannah, who is both uncompromising and ill-suited to him. She is an interesting contrast to Susanna Gregory's other sleuth - Matthew Bartholomew - who has the absent Mathilde to hold dear in his thoughts. One has no wife and is cherished, the other has his partner yet finds reality a struggle. It is an interesting contrast amongst the dozens of characters Gregory has introduced us to through some twenty-plus novels and makes this reviewer consider if there are underlying depths to why these oddly jarring characters exist.
That aside, Tom starts to reluctantly work with Williamson, finds himself with a household full of obdurate and insolent servants, delves into the depths of royal trading monopolies, has a list of murder victims as long as his arm, continues to recognise he really must find a friend (Wiseman is his perfect foil - he is Tom's Brother Michael) and spends some unpleasant time in the company of rats in a locked vault.
The denouement is all we expect of the author; the delight at finding how she has drawn on historical people to populate her fiction continues; the deft literary handling of each strand to form the tapestry; the believable characters and their continuing development; her astounding ability to confuse still those readers saturated in her genius for plot over these past ten years.
Susanna Gregory hits the spot every single time. She is the leading historical murder mystery writer in the UK, her pen is prolific and this reviewer...even ten years later...still drops whatever he is reading whenever a new novel comes from her and simply immerses himself in the pleasure of reading a darn good yarn.