We are in London, and the year is 1662, shortly after the Restoration. No one trusts anyone, not his neighbours, not his servants, not even members of his own family.
The Royalists are insecure and incompetent, and for the most part intent only on enjoying their new status. Some of them had all too obviously been playing a double game under Cromwell and the Commonwealth; as, it is now becoming clear, had some of the supporters of Cromwell – just in case the monarchy was ever restored. Of course, everyone now claims to support the King and to have been against the execution of his father, Charles I, but how many of them are telling the truth? And how many are involved in plots to restore the Commonwealth and make sure the King’s return is a temporary interlude?
Caught up in this turmoil is our hero, Thomas Chaloner, who was for ten years a Commonwealth agent stationed in Holland where he learnt the language, had a Dutch girlfriend, Metje, and began to feel at home. Then, with the Restoration, Cromwell’s Secretary of State (and spy-master) John Thurloe fell from power, and Thomas, back in London and unemployed, is trying without much hope of success to gain employment under the new government.
Then, when the situation is desperate and Thomas has reached rock bottom, Buckingham employs him to find a cache of treasure hidden somewhere in the Tower by a fleeing regicide (one of those who had put their name to the warrant for the execution of Charles I).
Thomas soon learns that his predecessor in Buckingham’s service had been murdered. Buckingham, however, does not want that investigated. Why not? Then it turns out that not just one of his predecessors but a whole series of them came to an untimely end!
Is there anyone Thomas can trust? Certainly none of the men. Even Thurloe has not been telling the truth.
Then can he trust one of the four women involved? Apart from Lady Castlemain, the King’s mistress, who means nothing to Thomas (though he does get to see her naked at one point – life at the palace is very free –
Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine, Duchess of Cleveland
- “Some of the King’s celebrations are very wild, and his barons copulate everywhere – with any woman who possesses the requisite body parts, usually” – one reason why many people would like to see the return of the Commonwealth), there is Metje, his Dutch girlfriend, now living in London and employed by a puritan family but slipping out to spend her nights with Thomas. There is Temperance, daughter of that same family, who is obviously in love with Thomas, and jealous of Metje. And there is Sarah, sister of John Thurloe, and very unhappily married, who kills a man to save Thomas’ life. He trusts Metje most (though not enough to tell her his secrets); he does not take young Temperance seriously; and he finds himself and Sarah Thurloe thrown more and more together.
Never a dull moment, as Thomas narrowly escapes with his life again and again (he is even attacked – twice! – by the King’s mad lion – a male named Sonja), and, en passant, you learn a lot of history (as always in good HF): for instance, I had never understood the importance of Holland, as an ally under the Commonwealth, and as a potential threat under the new royalist regime, and what is must have been like for Dutch people caught in London when the political pendulum swung and suddenly they were looked on as enemies.
The best historical mystery I have come across set in that particular period. According to the front cover, this is “Chaloner’s First Exploit in Restoration London”. I shall definitely be looking for the others.