A Nest of Vipers

Written by Catherine Johnson
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley Hal McNulty

London, 1712. Mother Hopkins is the fearsome matriarch of a young criminal gang based in the Nest of Vipers pub. There is Sam, a runaway black slave whom she rescued. Cato, also black, was bought by Mother Hopkins when a baby from his destitute mother; the Nest of Vipers is the only home he knows. Addy and Bella have other roles. Bella, the beauty, is skilled at extracting money from susceptible rich young men, and Addy plays a very convincing boy when needed. Lastly, there is Jack, famous for his muscles.

Mother Hopkins wants to retire and plans one last, huge scam involving a fictitious ship, its cargo of jewels and silks, and the very real Stapleton diamonds, acquired by Captain Walker’s haughty daughter, Elizabeth, on her marriage into the nobility. Mother Hopkins prides herself on never ruining anyone who doesn’t deserve it, and Captain Walker, she believes, richly deserves punishment. Not only is he a cruel Jamaican plantation owner who enslaved Sam, his own son, but he also reneged on his promise to free Sam’s mother.

Her trick is to use her victims’ own greed to draw them in, and she believes that the Stapleton diamond scam is foolproof—but is it? If it goes wrong, Cato, who plays a major role, could hang.

18th-century prints of London life not infrequently depict black people, and it’s good to see some of them coming to life in this well-researched and exciting book. I enjoyed the skill and audacity with which the various scams were carried out. There is one minor error: Sir John Stapleton’s title. The eldest son of a marquess uses one of his father’s lesser titles as a courtesy title, usually earl. He would never be ‘Sir John’.

It is a terrific read and children of 11 plus should enjoy it.

–Elizabeth Hawksley


This book is set in the early 1700s when Cato, a young boy belonging to a gang, ends up imprisoned and facing the gallows. So he tells his tale to the prison vicar. This story becomes the rest of the book. Cato is surrounded by his gang who are also his non-blood family. A Nest of Vipers is a great book because it is somewhat amusing that Cato and the many other children of his age are too young to be in a gang of this calibre. It reminded me of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, although it’s very different partly because the children in that book are mostly pickpockets, but the gang in A Nest of Vipers plot many schemes apart from pickpocketing.

The book is very fast paced and the action changes a lot during just one page. I greatly enjoyed it.

–Hal McNulty (aged 11)