Oliver Cromwell’s London in 1654 is a place of distrust, censorship, spies and murder. Covert royalists plot to return the son of the executed king to the throne and to overthrow Cromwell’s government. The Protectorate has become steeped in corruption and vanity, losing sight of its egalitarian vision, as Cromwell insists on being called His Highness, luxuriates in the royal palaces, and considers expanding into a Caribbean empire. One of Cromwell’s officers is stabbed to death in Whitehall. The dissident lawyer Elias Ellingworth is found standing over the body, knife in hand, and taken to the Tower. However, the victim’s wife is also covered in her husband’s blood and does not give a satisfactory account of her movements.
Damian Seeker is a feared enforcer in Cromwell’s employ, and like a relentless hound, he is on the trail of the murderer through London’s coffeehouses and seedy apothecary shops. Seeker is a compellingly tough, taciturn hero with a soft centre. The novel is brimful with vividly drawn other characters, too – the opium-addicted royalist wife of the murder victim, a Dutch royalist spy, the feisty sister of the dissident pamphleteer. Seeker stalks through London’s alleyways and palaces and through Oxford colleges, interrogating aristocrats, merchants, pedlars, preachers and crooks of the very worst calibre, intent on truth and justice. The story twists, turns and grips. I read it avidly in a couple of sittings, constantly thinking I had fathomed the plot, only to find I was quite wrong. S.G. MacLean has been compared to C.J. Sansom and Hilary Mantel, but she has an assured voice of her own, vividly evoking a good man’s effort to navigate an honest path through treacherous times. An excellent read.