The Butcher of Smithfield

Written by Susanna Gregory
Review by Nancy Henshaw

London 1663: Lord Clarendon’s spy Thomas Chaloner returns from a foreign assignment to an unfriendly greeting from his unreasonable paymaster. He has three days to prove how solicitor Newburne died; meanwhile, no back pay. Tom, with sixpence in his pocket, plunges into a city drowning in torrential rain and gales as the Thames rises, river traffic ceases and bridges collapse. London has changed in other ways: with the removal of Cromwell’s iron hand, the streets are dominated by merciless bullies. The most fear-inducing are the Hectors, enforcers of the seldom seen but sinister Butcher of Smithfield.

Tom’s enquiries provoke outbursts of escalating violence as he traipses, increasingly battered and knee-deep in muddy, sewage-laden water, faced with mounting unnatural deaths and unanswered questions: How does L’Estrange, ranting editor of government-censored, tedious newsbooks, stay in business when the uncensored and lively handwritten newsletters of suave operators, Muddiman and Dury, are enormously popular? Who is writing excruciatingly unmelodious music? Can’t Tom’s best friend, Leybourn, perceive that his bride is one of the most odious women ever to be encountered in fiction? Is anybody what they seem? The author generously scatters clues throughout.

For this first-time reader Tom Chaloner goes straight into the honourable league of fictional investigators: brave, persistent and incorruptible. The dialogue throughout is a delight, especially Tom’s one-liners in exchanges with his tetchy employer. A map would be nice, in addition to the one half-hidden on the cover of my proof copy.