In his second historical fiction Robert Wilton plunges into the English Civil War. On the royalist side is Sir Mortimer Shay, of the secret Comptrollerate-General of Scrutiny and Survey, and in the Parliament interest stands agent John Thurloe, intelligent, resourceful, dedicated – but perhaps no match for Shay. The combat between them, mostly conducted at a distance, covers three years of political manoeuvrings, bloody conflicts and bloodier reprisals as the scene shifts from London and Doncaster to Edinburgh and Drogheda, concluding in a village in Lincolnshire. At the end Shay and Thurloe come together, still antagonists but in a strange way as allies.
As in his first novel Treason’s Tide (originally published as The Emperor’s Gold), Wilton loves misdirection and obfuscation, tactics well suited to a tale of secret agents and the vagaries of the heart. They give energy to his fiction but at the cost of some confusion. As the story gallops towards its end, it is often hard to work out who is killing who and why.
Nevertheless this is a thoroughly satisfying read. The scene setting is fine, the damps, drizzles and mud tellingly conveyed. Shay and Thurloe are well-conceived, and the mystery and menace hold good throughout. Wilton’s conceit is that the story is taken from documents of the period hidden these many years. It is probably not so, probable that the ‘Comptrollerate-General of Scrutiny and Survey’ is an invention. But it is done so well – as are the purported newspaper stories of the period – that one feels no resentment about being tricked.
One tip, though: a set of papers is said to be lodged at ‘Philadelphia University’. There is a University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, which has passed under different names since 1740, but never ‘Philadelphia University’.