The ashes of London by Andrew Taylor
HarperCollins, 2017. ISBN 9780008207755
(Age: secondary to adult) Highly recommended. Themes: Great Fire of London, Sir Christopher Wren, London, Murder, Restoration, Commonwealth, Puritans. The year 1666 was already inauspicious containing three sixes, the mark of Satan to some, making the Great Fire of London a sign that things had not gone well after the restoration of Charles 11.
Intrigues still survive with some regicides, those who killed Charles 1 still at large, and undercurrents of the dissenting ideas of Cromwell are still at play.
So when a body is found in the ruins of St Paul's, James Marwood, working for Master Williamson, a real character, editor and publisher of the London Gazette, is given the job of finding out who the man is. A second body is found in the Fleet Ditch some days later and Marwood links the two as they both had their thumbs tied together behind their backs.
But Marwood's father was a Dissenter, and needs constant attention, causing Marwood to take time out for his welfare. And when he tells his son in one of his rambles that he has seen Tom Lovett, Marwood tries to elicit more information from the old man.
Alongside this story runs another, that of Cat Lovett, Tom's daughter, taken in by a self serving family after her father disappeared. People are after him, his politics now out of fashion, while she is betrothed to a man she does not care for, more interested in her family property than her. When the son of the house rapes her she escapes, throwing herself on the mercy of another family, that of her manservant, Jem, and in their inn she serves an architect working for Dr Christopher Wren on the plans to rebuild London. Cat was brought up with a modern thinking aunt who loved architecture and she developed in her niece some rare interests and gifts, unusual for those days, so Cat takes a real interest in the man's work, often helping him as palsy sets in. Told to leave the inn where she has been working, Cat hides in various places wanting to keep away from her father and his beliefs.
The political intrigue behind the story is fascinating, revealing that the Restoration did not smooth over the fraught times of killing a king or of having Cromwell's Commonwealth ruling Britain. Monarchists are questioning the extravagance of Charles 11 and his indebtedness to some of the wealthier men in Britain. Dissenters cause alarm and those still at large after the execution of Charles 1 are still being hunted down.
The fathers of both Cat and Marwood were involved in the plot against the king and Marwood is doing his best to help his father, impeded by his growing dementia and ill health, while Cat's father is being sought by the authorities for greater reasons that his beliefs.
Against the converging of these two protagonists is the marvelous rebuilding of London. Taylor's descriptions of the aftermath of the fire are riveting, and following the characters as they make their way through the streets of London makes for exciting reading. Ash still covers the streets, homeless are everywhere, people wander about still in shock, food is scarce, surveyors are trying to establish a sense of boundary markers, and still the London Gazette publishes its weekly list of the dead, now including the two unknown men whose identities Marwood is seeking.
This is a most engrossing crime story set within a richly detailed historical setting.