Monday, October 8, 2018

“The Ashes of London” by Andrew Taylor

September 1666: For four days, the Great Fire of London rages. It starts in the King’s bakery in Pudding Lane. By the time it ends, on Sept. 6, the homes of 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 inhabitants are destroyed, along with 87 churches, all of the city’s governmental buildings, and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Large crowds gather and watch in horror as the great cathedral is consumed in flame.

What will be left for months afterward are charred ruins, the smell of burnt wood, and ashes. 

Map showing the full extent of the Great Fire of London
In the crowd watching the fire at St. Paul’s is James Marwood, a young man working as a temporary clerk for a government office in Westminster. He cares for his aging father, a man who barely survived the restoration of King Charles II in 1660, after the death of Oliver Cromwell led to the end of the Commonwealth. Charles spared many (John Milton was briefly imprisoned) but some of the leaders had bounties on their heads. Marwood and his father live in Chelsea, renting a room from a family. 

Marwood watches the fire at St. Paul’s, and he prevents what appears to be a young boy from rushing into the burning church. The boy struggles with Marwood, finally biting his hand to escape, but not before stealing Marwood’s cloak. The boy, as it turns out, is Catherine Lovett, the niece of a wealthy goldsmith and money lender, whose clients include King Charles. Catherine’s father is Thomas Lovett, a Cromwell supporter who faces certain death if he’s caught by the king.

An unburned body will be found in the ruins of St. Paul’s, a servant of Catherine’s uncle. He’s been murdered, and his thumbs tied together. Then a second body is found in the Fleet ditch, the thumbs tied the same way. And Marwood is employed to learn what happened and who the killer might me. The killings smack of revenge, with threads leading to those who would still overthrow the restored king.

And so begins The Ashes of London, an enthralling historical novel (and mystery) by Andrew Taylor. It is also something of a travel book of the London of 350 years ago; Taylor has a great gift for reimagining the past and bringing it to life.

Andrew Taylor
Taylor is the author of a long list of historical crime and fiction novels, including The Mortal Sickness (1996); The Four Last Things (1997); The Lover of the Grave (1997); The Judgment of Strangers (1998); The Office of the Dead (1998); The Suffocating Night (1999); When Roses Fade (2001); The American Boy (2004); An Unpardonable Crime (2004); Bleeding Heart Square (2009); Anatomy of Ghosts (2012); The Scent of Death (2014); Fireside Gothic (2016); and several others. The Ashes of Londonwas published in 2017, and a sequel, The King’s Evil, will be published in the U.K. in April 2019.He lives near the English-Welsh border in the U.K.

As the investigation continues, the paths of James Marwood and Catherine Lovett eventually cross again. Catherine has escaped her uncle’s house to avoid marriage to a man who’s something of a decorative fop (he needs her money) and after being raped by her cousin (for which she repays him). Marwood finds himself drawn ever deeper into palace politics and intrigue. As the story builds toward its fateful climax, Marwood, Lovett, and the reader inevitably find themselves back where it started – the ruin of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The Ashes of London is an outstanding example of the historical novel and historical crime novel.


Top illustration: A painting of what the Great Fire of London looked like at its height, by the Museum of London via Wikimedia.

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