Susanna Gregory is back with her latest historical mystery featuring Thomas Chaloner. Hannah is dead, struck down by the plague (this is not a spoiler…Gregory tells us this in the opening Prologue) and Tom finds himself a widower again with plenty of free time after the Battle of Lowestoft. London has become a ghost town; the King et al. have fled to the ‘safety’ of Hampton Court to avoid the Plague; Thomas’ employer, the Earl of Clarendon is about to follow suit until two swift strangulations – one in the Gorges Hospital for the Insane, one in his Whitehall townhouse prompt him to send both Tom and Kipps off to Chelsea to investigate…with a dearth of accurate information as is his wont. In his anti-plague-medicine-pack he’s got an option of treacle, tobacco or coffee.
The two go with Wiseman (who is to Tom as Michael is to Gregory’s other super sleuth – Matthew Bartholomew) and find themselves in a plot so complicated that it somehow manages to surpass Gregory’s usual weave of mystery. Someone is cavorting through Chelsea strangling people; the only witnesses tend to be mad, writing clues in despairingly cryptic fashion. There are petty thieves, a love interest, angry fishermen, raucous courtiers, secret prisoners, gold galore and a mysterious ‘ghost’ all prowling the Chelsea environs in convoluted attempts to mask their true intentions.
Tom’s got a headache here, and so have the readers. Whilst Tom might have “found he was rather looking forward to unearthing the secrets that this mismatched group hoped to hide from him”, there’s the problem of realising that “the loss of the Treasury in its entirety would likely plunge the country into another civil war” and “he did not want to investigate a murder where the chief suspect was his friend’s wife”.
As usual, Gregory draws on historical personages to flesh out her narrative. We have the Treasury Commissioners: Bullen Reymes, William Doyley, John Evelyn, Thomas Clifford; Gorges is run by Mrs Bonney, Franklin and the overly-caffeinated Dr Parker ; then there is Underhill, Warwick Kole, Cocke, Dove and the overly opinionated, rabble rousing theologian – Rector Wilkinson. Everyone’s mendacious, everyone is sly, everyone has an agenda – all of which leads to merry murderous mayhem and plots to steal gold. Tom is forced to hide in dark places, to question people again and again, to accept help from the delightful Eleanore, and to engage in desperate fights to save himself, a hospital, and his country – none of which he’ll get much recognition for.
What does deserve recognition, as I have said in many reviews before, is the author’s exceptional literary skill. Restoration London is brought to vivacious life, real people from the time would be surprised to find their true memorials are in these books, the mysteries are never easy to unravel even if you are familiar with her novels, and the prose style satiating in its intellectual, descriptive, and thematic prowess. What makes it all so indelibly fine is the fact Gregory is so prolific.
Read this author with her forty-plus novels…you will never regret it.