Half of London is watching as St Paul’s burns during the opening scene of The Ashes of London – Andrew Taylor’s first book in his historical mystery series featuring investigative clerk, James Marwood. We are there in the crowd as the rats scamper for their lives and the beloved cathedral begins to collapse. Out of the crowd, a boy runs towards the conflagration, and Marwood dashes to stop him. Only, he turns out to be a she and instead of explaining herself, the girl bites Marwood, making off with his cloak.
Yes, it’s 1666, the year that brought the Great Fire of London. You can feel the heat as Marwood views the scene he must report on to his bosses. It’s not easy being the son of a Fifth Monarchist, a follower of a faith that believes the current monarch (Charles II) should die in order to bring about the second coming of Christ. Marwood senior has served time in the tower for his beliefs, and this has left him frail and suffering from dementia. Young James has to manage his father, keep his demanding job at Whitehall, and investigate a murder – in this case, a body discovered in the ruins of St Pauls, with distinctive wounds – expertly stabbed at the top of the spine, hands tied together by the thumbs.
The story flips between Marwood and eighteen-year-old Cat Lovett, an orphan living with an uncle and about to be married off to a foppish, self-indulgent ass. It’s a marriage of convenience that will favour her wealthy uncle at court. Cat also has to suffer the advances of her boarish cousin. She spends her evenings dreaming of new cities and making architectural drawings until an act of violence forces her into hiding.
Taylor has created two engaging young characters: Marwood a reluctant detective, who will do anything to keep his father safe; spirited young Cat with her dreams of designing buildings. They are caught up in interesting political times, with a king ruling a populace that was recently divided by religion, the memories of civil war still raw. Then on top of all that, first the plague and now the fire. You get a sense of what it must have been like for Charles (yes, we do meet him in the novel) as well as the ordinary person trying to get by.
The story is well paced, full of interesting twists propelling the two protagonists slowly towards a final scene of heightened danger and resolution. Taylor ticks all the boxes to bring off a well-researched historical mystery, one that will have you wanting to find out what happens next in the lives of Marwood and Cat Lovett. Happily, I can report there two more books so far: The Fire Court (nominated for a CWA Dagger Award) and The King’s Evil. It’s a terrific new series if the first book is anything to go by. Four out of five from me.