Black Drop

Written by Leonora Nattrass
Review by Sally Zigmond

London, 1793. Laurence Jago is a lowly government clerk, decoding messages and copying documents. He is answerable to George Aust, Permanent Under-Secretary to Lord Grenville, the Foreign Secretary, but Laurence has a dangerous secret.

After the initial euphoria of the 1789 French Revolution, France is now seen as the enemy. Laurence’s mother is French, and he is fluent in the language. So when a letter written in French he recently copied (and supposedly could not understand) is leaked to the press, he is terrified he will end up in prison. His fear increases his addiction to opium—The Black Drop. Then he discovers the hanged body of a friend and fellow clerk. Blame for the leak is then shifted to the dead man, but even as the body is taken to the anatomists for dissection, Laurence is certain both of his friend’s innocence and that he was murdered. But after years of hiding his own secrets from his powerful employers, and at a time when even the slightest hint of treason can lead to the gallows, how can Laurence find the true culprit without incriminating himself?

When I opened the first page I was woefully ignorant of the politics of the 18th century, apart from the basic outline: the French Revolution, the American War of Independence and the “madness” of King George III. Reading this richly detailed novel soon put me straight and plunged me into an exciting, frightening and, on occasion, amusing, tale of espionage and deceit that gripped me from beginning to end. Highly recommended.