People who read fiction know things. I used to tell my students that so often that they probably mouthed it behind my back in mockery. But of course I was right. Fiction is an indispensable fount of general knowledge. And Ashes of London (2016) is a good example.
Yes, of course, I learned in primary school that the Great Fire of London was in 1666. And I was taken to the Monument and told stories about a baker in Pudding Lane. But, despite later reading Pepys and Evelyn I had never actually thought much about what it would have been like at the time to be on the ground in London surrounded by ash, dangerous buildings, people sheltering in cellars, the fate of the old St Paul’s in the balance (rebuild or renovate?) and a lot of people drawing up plans and vying for contracts. Neither – what an admission! – had I given any serious thought to the Fire in relation to the Restoration only six years earlier and the death of Cromwell only eight years before.
Andrew Taylor brings all that to life in this crime novel, the first of a series featuring Cat Lovett and James Marwood, set at the time of the Fire. You can almost smell the acridity of ashes and hear the creaking of the temporary supports hastily erected to stop more buildings collapsing as his complex web of characters skirt round, and confront each other, at a time when nobody is quite sure where other people’s loyalties lie. Yes, an Act of Indemnity protects most people from being prosecuted for supporting The Commonwealth but not if you were a regicide. And Charles 1’s execution in front of the Banqueting House in Whitehall in 1649 is only 17 years ago. James Marwood vividly remembers being taken to see it as a child by his printer father, a Commonwealth supporter who now has dementia.
Cat Lovett is also the child of a wanted man, portrayed as well- meaning, passionate – blinded by religion – and flawed. Cat, who hasn’t seen her father for a long time, goes into hiding at the beginning of the novel because, living with an aunt, she is raped by her cousin and maims him in retaliation. She is a refreshingly feisty character. This is not the only time she behaves incisively – and that’s a literal adverb in this context.
St Paul’s cathedral, now a huge, dangerous ruin towers over the action and it doesn’t come as a huge surprise that the suspenseful denouement takes place at the top of the crumbling tower. It’s really just a question of who is going over. No spoilers.
Action packed, full of colour and history – just the thing for winter evenings as the days shorten.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Should We Stay or Should We Go by Lionel Shriver