Book Review: The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley – another excellent twisty read in an atmospheric setting

Lucy Foley really knows how to conjure an interesting setting. We’ve had a wedding venue on an island in The Guest List, luxury accomodation cut off by snow in The Hunting Party and here a gated apartment building in a posh part of Paris. I can see how her mind works. She’s seen a setting and wondered who lives or works there, like we all do, and then wondered what if there was a murder.

In The Paris Apartment, Jess is on the run from her job in England. She’s done something she shouldn’t have and hopped on the train for Paris to crash with her brother Ben. The two were separated as children when their mother killed herself. Ben who could charm anybody was quickly adopted and enjoyed the spoils of doting parents and a good education. Jess however, much younger and evidently not so charming, went from foster family to foster family, forever scarred by being the one to find their mother’s dead body. Her education has been minuscule which is why she’s been working in a dodgy bar.

Jess turns up at Ben’s Paris address, an apartment in a surprisingly luxurious building with an internal courtyard garden. The old lady concierge isn’t very welcoming and Ben isn’t home. But Jess is street-wise and manages to get inside anyway, fashioning her cheap hoop earrings into a device to pick the apartment lock. Inside, still no Ben, only a cat with blood on its fur. And it looks as if someone has scrubbed something off the floor using bleach. Jess begins to suspect the worst.

The gated apartment building offers a select bunch of suspects who Jess slowly gets to know. Nobody’s very friendly and nobody seems to know what Ben’s been up to lately. He’s a journalist so we can only suppose he was snooping around too much. The only one who is at all friendly is Nick, Ben’s friend who helped him secure this flat. Ben and Nick were at university together.

There’s also Sophie in the penthouse flat with her little dog and who is much nicer to the dog than people. She’s a high-maintenance middle-aged woman married to Jacques, who is mostly away on business – something to do with wine if the cellar down in the basement is anything to go by. There’s broody, menacing Antoine who frightens Jess when she first arrives. That leaves two young girls who share a flat: sensitive art student Mimi and her party-animal pal, Camille.

The story switches between the characters and backwards into the past to portray a picture of Ben, the charming Englishman interloper, from various points of view. Everyone seems to be afraid of something and they all seem to be hiding something. Just as everyone seems to have pieces missing from the puzzle. It’s going to have to be Jess who sorts it all out but who can she trust? The reader is all too aware that Ben has likely paid a price for asking too many questions. Thank goodness Jess’s got a bit of help from foreign correspondent Theo, who looks like a pirate but seems to be otherwise trustworthy because Jess is in way over her head.

Lucy Foley delivers another clever twisty mystery. How she manages to keep track of who knows what and a backwards and forward timeline suggests a pinboard covered in spreadsheets and graphs. Agatha Christie would have been impressed. Jess is the perfect character for Foley’s amateur sleuth because she is so completely at sea in this sophisticated Parisian setting, is barely educated and thoroughly naive. Instead she relies on gut instinct, driven by love for her brother and a determination for justice. The Paris Apartment comes together nicely to create a light but very satisfying read and gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic – introducing an unforgettable new sleuth

After such a run of historical novels, I was more than ready for a good, meaty mystery and what better than some Aussie Noir. I’d been meaning to pick up the first in this series for a while because I’d read good things and the idea of a hearing-impaired private investigator sparked my interest. Calum Zelic has been profoundly deaf since a childhood illness. Now in his thirties, he’s divorced and running a private investigation company. Mostly it’s small stuff, like the case he’s got now: the theft of cigarettes in bulk from a warehouse.

Caleb is interesting because he pretends he can hear just as well as anybody else, picking up what he can from lip reading, and signing with the people who know him better. And although Caleb has a talent for reading people through their body language, it’s just as well his trusty side-kick, tough-talking ex-cop, Frankie, is there to pick up anything he’s missed. The two create some terrific dialogue as they are always sparring with each other.

When his childhood friend, Gary, is murdered in an unspeakably violent way, Caleb is both grieving and flung into danger. Gary, a policeman, has been helping Caleb with his case – maybe it’s more than just cigarettes going in and out of that warehouse. Before his death he sent Caleb a text warning him about a man named Scott. Next thing you know, Frankie has gone missing, Caleb’s running for his life and turns to Kat, his ex-wife for help. The two hide out in Resurrection Bay, Gary and Caleb’s childhood home.

In Resurrection Bay we get snippets of Caleb’s childhood, and meet Anton, Caleb’s dodgy brother, who has done time for drug-related crime. Anton says he’s turned his life around, but can you ever trust an addict? We have some interesting dynamics between the two brothers, while Caleb still carries a torch for Kat. So with the case and all, he’s a bundle of conflicting emotions.

Viskic has created a pacy crime thriller but what kept me turning the pages was the smart dialogue and quirky characters. Caleb is constantly on the receiving end of a pasting, but somehow manages to keep going. He plays a cat and mouse game in several nail-biting scenes, and unable to rely on sounds, uses his remaining senses tuned up to the max. This makes for some very dramatic moments all the while propelling Caleb to a gritty showdown and a few twisty surprises.

My only gripe was that the ending just seemed to be a little too much – the violence and the twists. A little over-egging of the pudding perhaps. Although this is probably not uncommon in this genre and the book has garnered a bunch of awards. Overall, Resurrection Bay is a great start to a new series, and I will be happy to check out the next books because Caleb is such a brilliant creation. I even developed a hankering to learn sign language. This book gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Hunting Dogs by Jorn Lier Horst – a detailed police procedural with a likeable Norwegian detective

When it comes to Scandinavian crime fiction, I’ve often thought if only there were more Wallander novels published by Henning Mankell before his death in 2015. I’ve tried other Scandinavians of course and enjoyed them – Jussi Adler Olsen’s Department Q series is worth a look. But for a more psychological read with an engaging policeman, Norwegian author, Jorn Lier Horst’s William Wisting’s novels seem to capture much of that atmosphere I’ve liked so much with Wallander.

Wisting is a Chief Inspector in his fifties at the start of The Hunting Dogs working out of the Criminal Investigation Dept of Larvik Police. This novel has him revisiting the abduction of a teenage girl who was subsequently murdered seventeen years ago. The killer, recently released Rudolf Haglund, has employed a lawyer to prove his case for wrongful imprisonment, alleging that police tampered with the evidence. As senior investigating officer at the time, Wisting is stood down from duties while an inquiry is underway.

Meanwhile, Line, Wisting’s daughter, is aware that the newspaper she works for is about to splash this story all over the front page in the morning. She is appalled – she knows her dad would never tamper with evidence to secure a conviction and rushes off into a wet, miserable night after a better story to bump the Haglund allegations onto page two. She gets caught up in a murder – a man attacked on the street, while his dog stands guard in the rain, a bit like Greyfriar’s Bobby. Great photo material. But when Line tracks down the owner and calls round to the victim’s house, she’s assaulted too.

What can the two murders have in common? Well, in real life probably nothing, but this being crime fiction, you know they’ll intersect sooner or later. Wisting heads off to his cabin in the woods to dig through old paperwork and calls on favours from a retired crime scene investigator. He studies photos of the police team involved unable to imagine who would have fiddled with those cigarette butts.

His relationship with cafĂ© owner Suzanne is going south – he’s always up at dawn, and she’s always late home, while the police crime investigators are threatening a prison sentence. So Wisting’s up against it. When another teenage girl goes missing, there are echoes of the original Haglund case, and Wisting is desperate to get back in harness to find her. So much pressure, but what can he do?

If Wisting’s hands are tied, Line is all fired up to do some snooping, particularly when she spots the link between her murder victim and Haglund. She calls in her mates, too – a couple from her newspaper and an old boyfriend who turns up out of the blue. We get a brilliant scene where they show the reader how to follow a suspect. Honestly, it was like a scene from Spooks. Yes, it seems, journalists know all the tricks.

The plot steadily builds to a showdown with plenty of danger and edge of seat action. All the while you are aware that time is ticking for the abducted girl. It’s a great read, but what I really like is the detail of the detective work and how authentic it sounds. This is probably because Horst was once himself a policeman in Larvik, so the procedures around evidence storage and forensics are carefully explained and make interesting reading. We’ve also got some well-considered points around police ethics, loyalty and morality adding depth to the story.

There is plenty to like with The Hunting Dogs; the writing is crisp and the translation (thanks, Anne Bruce) is seamless, never clunky. So you can see why Horst is one of my favourites among the Scandinavians. I’m not alone – he’s won a bunch of awards, including The Petrona, a Scandi-crime fiction award for books translated into English. This one earns a four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Woman Who Spoke to Spirits by Alys Clare – a new crime-solving partnership hits Victorian London

Alys Clare is known for her medieval mysteries, particularly the Hawkenlye and Aelf Fen books. I hear they’re really good, but these were the times when life was “nasty, brutish and short”, so I’ve always steered clear, maybe unnecessarily. But I was pleased when Clare decided to jump forward a few centuries to set her new series in 1880s London.

Lily Raynor is a private investigator who is beginning to make a name for herself with her ability to get to the bottom of things with tact and discretion. Working from her late grandparents’ apothecary shop, she finds herself too busy to manage all the filing, note-taking and plant watering at her World’s End Bureau, so decides to hire an assistant. Of the six candidates on her shortlist, only the last is in any way promising. Although Felix Wilbraham isn’t quite what she had in mind.

Felix is a from a well to-do background, but falling out with his dear papa, has been living a hand to mouth existence of late. He’s down to his last pennies when he eagerly accepts Lily’s offer of employment. And so marks the beginning of a new crime-fighting partnership. Felix has excellent penmanship and the enthusiasm of a lively puppy. He hasn’t a clue about pot plants but after his month’s trial, becomes indispensable to Lily, not just for filing and making tea, but in the field of inquiry.

The story cracks on with two cases for the bureau. Lily attends a private member’s club to interview Lord Berwick who is worried about his son – a weak young who has become besotted with an ageing actress. But she’s not Lady Berwick material so Lily is asked to investigate her background and to see if she’s merely toying with young Julian and if there’s anything about her that might cool Julian’s ardour. Meanwhile Felix interviews a Mr Stibbins who is worried about his wife. They are a happy couple, and Mrs Stibbins helps out the bereaved through her work as a medium. But lately she has a feeling that her life is in danger.

So two quite different cases. But as the smart reader will remember from the prologue, Mrs Stibbins isn’t the only woman in danger – a young girl has been murdered in the vicinity and soon the bureau is caught up with the matter of women, mainly prostitutes, who have gone missing. This really cranks up the danger, especially when Lily plays a duplicitous game. The story builds to a nail-biting ending to reveal a criminal with a particularly original bent.

This is an intelligently plotted and engaging story with two likeable main characters. Lily has a background in midwifery, but a shadow clouding her past she thinks of as The Incident, has seen her eager to change profession. She has an interesting association with a canal boatman who has a gypsy-like alternative life-style and an other-worldly wisdom.

Felix’s experiences as an older woman’s plaything, along with his knowledge of the seamier theatre world, help him with the Berwick case. So both he and Lily have secrets that they are as yet unwilling to share with each other. This sets the scene for some interesting character development and dynamics that will no doubt affect their working relationship.

This is a very entertaining and relaxing period mystery that never gets too dark, in spite of the grimmer side of Victorian London emerging from time to time. You get a strong sense of the rigidity of a class system that keeps people in their place and that women like Lily are pushing boundaries by determining their own futures. She’s a complex character and I look forward to getting to know her better through the series. (Book number two is The Outcast Girls.) The Woman Who Spoke to Spirits scores a four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Fine Art of Invisible Detection by Robert Goddard – a complex and original page-turner with a twist

What does a Japanese crime boss, a chemical defence base in Cornwall and real estate in Iceland have in common? They are all part of a complex new thriller by Robert Goddard. I had really enjoyed Goddard’s Wide World trilogy set during the time of the Versailles treaty negotiations after World War One. So I knew Goddard could throw together a twisty, action packed story with engaging characters, witty writing and an ending you don’t see coming.

And so it is here. The Fine Art of Invisible Detection begins with a difficult case for the Kodaka Detective Agency in Tokyo. Umiko Wada mostly does the office work but a new case has her packing her bags for London to impersonate a client. Mrs Takenada wants to discover if her father really committed suicide on a business to London in 1977. Or did his connections with notorious career criminal, Nishizaki, lead to his murder? She’s received a letter from a Martin Caldwell asking to meet up. He has evidence about a former friend of his who worked as an interpreter for Mrs Takenada’s dad. But Mrs T’s family are cautious so Wada is sent in her place.

With the sudden suspicious death of her boss Wada might be biting off more than she can chew, but Wada is smart, careful and has one thing that many other private detectives might envy: she has the knack for blending in with a crowd. When Martin doesn’t arrive at the appointed time for their interview, you can’t help wondering if something has happened to him as well.

The story switches between Wada’s narrative and that of Nick Miller, an art teacher that Martin has been in touch with as well. Similarly Martin fails to show up to meet Nick and so Nick and Wada both conduct their own investigations into what Martin had been trying to tell them and why he might be missing.

The story takes the reader to Nancekuke in Cornwall where the British military had been conducting trials on chemical weapons, in particular sarin gas acquired from the Nazis at the end of World War Two. Wada has her own personal connection with sarin – her husband was a victim of the sarin gas attack on a Tokyo train in the 90s and took twelve years to die. But what could any of this have to do with her possible suicide victim in London? She and Nick will both find themselves travelling to Iceland to find out.

This is another brilliant twisty read with all kinds of story threads going off in different directions and then somehow coming back together. Wada is a great character, discovering as she goes on how to be a credible private detective. Fortunately she can think on her feet and has a cool head because someone is out to stop her. Nick is interesting because he is the mostly unlikely of heroes, but he has the strong emotional pull of someone grieving a parent, while trying to find the truth of his paternity. Goddard doesn’t let him sit around drinking tea and pondering what’s what however. Like Wada, he’s on and off planes, visiting crime-scenes, getting caught up in the action and fearing for his life.

The story builds to a thrilling ending and who knows, maybe another case for Wada, although Goddard mostly writes one-offs. Personally, I’d be happy to visit the Kodaka Detective Agency again. Wada is interesting company. Goddard manages to write from the point of view of a middle-aged Japanese woman and make her seem credible. The history around the Nancekuke base will have you searching the Internet and what you discover makes for some grim reading. I like it when you have a rip-roaring read with some substance and that’s certainly the case here. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Famished Heart by Nicola White – an unusual crime story set in 1980s Dublin

I picked up The Famished Heart, initially thinking it would be a bit like Dervla McTiernan’s brilliant crime series featuring Cormac Reilly. They both have lead police officers who don’t fit in with their colleagues and a boss who probably doesn’t like them either. You get a good deal of police station politics in both. But this book is more of a slow-burner that reminded me of some of Ruth Rendell’s Wexford novels (now there’s a blast from the past!) with its focus on a small community and psychological drama.

We’ve got three main narrative points of view. Father Timoney is the unlucky priest called to visit two middle-aged sisters in his parish who haven’t been seen in weeks. What he finds would shock even the most seasoned of clerics: the Macnamara sisters have apparently starved to death, possibly willingly for religious reasons. Timoney has his own problems too. He’s only been in his parish a few months, has a dwindling congregation, an unheated church that is an architectural monstrosity, and a spiteful housekeeper. Throw in back pain and a lack of confidence and he’s really struggling.

Frances Macnamara is the sister that got away. She’s a glamorous actress who, now in her forties, is finding it hard to get well-paid roles, leaving her strapped for cash. She’s in New York when she receives the news of her sisters’ deaths. Flying home she teams up with a niece who was supposed to look in on her aunts, but there’d been a falling out with the older sister and she’s living in a grungy flat. So there’s nowhere for Frances to stay but in the house where it all happened. They soon get the keys because the police don’t think the deaths suspicious.

Well, Detective Inspector Vincent Swan thinks they’re suspicious; someone’s wiped any fingerprints from the door handles and made a crude arrangement of some ornamental animals. But Swan’s being stood down while there’s an investigation into police brutality. He’s not a violent man, unlike the two officers also under investigation, the kind of officers he really doesn’t get along with. Just as well Detective Garda Gina Considine is on the job. She’s the only female officer on the team and suffers sexism on a daily basis – this is Dublin in the ’80s, after all. But she’s smart and a good pairing for sensitive and thoughtful Swan.

Just when you think this story is all about religious mania – and to some extent it is – another death leads our two detectives in another direction and the plot really heats up. You finish the book thinking this is a satisfying mystery, but you’ve also come to know the characters really well. White writes about relationships superbly – throwing people together and seeing how they spark off each other and then come to new realisations. This makes you want to check in with Vincent Swan another time, so it’s good news that this is the start of a series. The second book is an earlier novel and book number three is out next year. A Famished Heart scores a four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley – a tense mystery that keeps you guessing

This novel is very similar in structure to The Guest List, Foley’s later book (which I reviewed last year) so it’s hard not to make comparisons. Both use the same before and now time shifts and leave the reader guessing not only who the murderer is – there are multiple candidates – but also the identity of the victim. The cast of characters – victims, witnesses and suspects – is cut off from the world by a weather event in both books. So beginning the earlier book, I asked myself, should I feel a little short-changed?

But in no time The Hunting Party swept me off into the story, because Foley is superb at creating tension and drama. The scenario is a group of nine friends who take the train for a weekend away in Scotland to see in the New Year at a remote hunting lodge. Most of them have been friends since university, although it is Emma, a more recent addition to the group, who arranges everything. She’s here as she’s Mark’s girlfriend. Mark is Julian’s best mate and Julian is married to Miranda, and these two are the alpha couple of the group. Julian and Miranda are fabulously wealthy and incredibly good looking. They seem to have it all and as we know that means trouble, particularly with their continued disregard for other people’s feelings.

The lodge is run by two live-in staff. Heather, recovering from loss, prefers her own company and the quiet of the remote setting. Doug is also running away from something – a checkered past that includes PTSD from his stints as a soldier in Afghanistan. His past is littered with violence, and he’s in charge of the shooting. You can’t help wondering what it might take to set him off. The presumptuousness and bad behaviour of a group of drunk friends might just do the trick.

Not long into the story there is a snow storm which turns the hunting lodge and its grounds into an island. When a body is found, emergency services are unable to send help until the weather lets up, leaving Heather and Doug to manage the situation – two very fragile people.

As I said, Foley is a master at building tension, the before and now time-frame keeps you guessing, but slowly fills you in with what’s going on in the heads of several characters, as well as their interactions with others. The party of friends are mostly people you wouldn’t want to spends a lot time with. There are supreme displays of arrogance and one-up-manship, and multiple secrets. Games of Twister and Truth or Dare oiled with an abundance of alcohol as well as drugs don’t help. It’s easy to empathise with Heather and even Doug, who appear vulnerable. Can they trust each other enough to keep things from boiling over?

The story bounces along to a tense ending where more violence is set to happen and the method and motives keep you guessing till the end. Overall I had to feel happy with the story as I was well entertained. The audiobook version I listened to was well-done and brought the book to life superbly. But I wonder if Lucy Foley will break out with a new type of story for her next novel. A better class of beach read, I’m going to give The Hunting Party a three and a half out of five.

Book Review: The Appeal by Janice Hallett – page-turner told in emails and texts

The epistolary novel has become a popular trend mirroring the many options we have for communicating these days. But I’m not sure I’ve come across one that’s a murder mystery before. The Appeal deals with a murder that has been tried in court, a perpetrator found guilty, the case supposedly done and dusted. Fearing a miscarriage of justice, Roderick Tanner, QC, calls upon two articled clerks, Charlotte and Femi, to plough through the evidence to try and establish what really happened.

The story is told via this correspondence between suspects, a chronological collection of mostly emails between witnesses as well as texts between the legal team. Throw in a few police interviews and newspaper articles and you’ve got an interesting mix.

We don’t know who was killed until late in the story, but Hallett builds a picture of a small community with, at its heart, an alpha family – Martin and Grace Hayward who own the Grange and manage the Fairway Players, an amateur theatre group. They have all the status that goes with their stately home. Grace Hayward is a former actress who steals every scene when on stage and Martin directs.

Among the players, Issy Beck writes a lot of emails, cheery little notes of support particularly to her new colleague at the hospital, Samantha and her husband Kel Greenwood. The Greenwoods are recently back in England after years working with aid agencies in Africa and there are hints they left under a cloud. But Issy, lonely, mousy and lacking any kind of standing with her colleagues or community, is determined to be Sam’s friend, encouraging her and Kel to audition for the new play.

But barely have the Greenwoods joined the Fairway Players and the troupe started learning their lines than Martin Hayward drops the bombshell that their grand-daughter Poppy has a rare form of brain cancer. The emails track the huge support the players and other locals show the Haywards, and suddenly the story is more about the massive fundraising that takes place to pay for ground-breaking treatment from the United States. A lot of money is involved and potential complications of trust and misuse are thrown into the mix.

Janice Hallett does a terrific job of evoking the personalities and motives of her characters through what they write to each other. The confusion and questions Femi and Charlotte reveal in their text messages to each other mirror what you feel as a reader, but slowly it all begins to make sense, answering the five main questions Tanner asks of his clerks. Police interview transcripts and reports, oddly enough, don’t shed a lot of light as people are obviously lying or haven’t a clue, which makes the book seem more realistic somehow.

I wasn’t sure I would have picked up a mystery written in this format if I hadn’t read glowing reviews of The Appeal. Through Hallett’s skill, instead of hampering the reader, the emails, texts and sundry correspondence cohere to create a gripping page-turner and I whipped through the novel, eager to see if the things I’d noticed were as important as I thought they might be. I came away thinking the book was really very clever and very well done. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: Black Out by John Lawton – noirish wartime thriller

I couldn’t remember why I’d put Black Out on my Must Read list. It must have been recommended in glowing tones somewhere as it doesn’t have the look of the kind of book I normally read. But when I eventually picked it up, I was soon hooked. And that’s in spite of it beginning with a grisly discovery – a severed arm on a bomb site.

We’re in London, 1944, and the Blitz has turned whole blocks into rubble. You’d think it would be easy to pass off a killing as death by explosion and get away with it. Fortunately, Sergeant Troy of Scotland Yard knows murder when he sees it. Soon he’s connected it to another death and a disappearance, men who have recently turned up in Britain from Germany. Why would anyone bring them across in the middle of a war just to kill them in this cloak and dagger way?

The plot will involve the American secret service (Office of Strategic Services – which will soon be the CIA) as well as an underground group of Communist sympathisers. There is not one femme fatale , but two, one of them rather short and the other rather tall.

Sergeant Freddie Troy is himself an interesting character. The son of Russian emigrĂ© parents, his father made his fortune in newspapers. So Troy went to Harrow, but eschewed university for the police. At twenty-eight, he has decided to stick with the police rather than enlisting in one of the services. Why should he fight for a country that interned his older brother and his uncle? But London in the Blitz is no picnic. Here’s Troy getting a bit of a lecture from older brother, Rod.

‘…The war was, as you put it, good to me. I rather think I enjoyed it. But you didn’t did you?’ You got shot – “
‘Twice.”
‘Stabbed.’
‘Four times.’
‘Bombed.’
‘Twice again.’
‘Beaten up.’
‘More times than I can count. Look, Rod, what’s the point you’re tying to make? You’re not telling me all this tosh just to let me know I missed a trick by not volunteering.’

While I tired a little of the women in Troy’s life, the tall and the short, and even Troy is a cold fish at times, I did enjoy other characters immensely. The pathologist, Kolankievicz, is a wonderful creation with his wild ear hair and colourful language; you don’t want to mess with Superintendent Onions who is bluntly North of England and bull-headed, and then there’s Troy’s side-kick, DC Wildeve who has a gift for intuition and general smarts. Troy and Wildeve are known at the Yard as ‘the tearaway toffs’. Even the scruffy kids who find the arm in scene one are each interesting in their own way, while there’s an eccentric Russian uncle who holds forth on Speaker’s Corner.

Troy’s kind of interesting too, trying to manage all the people in his life and failing miserably. He’s a loner at heart and often his own worst enemy. The story bounces along with a good mix of action, police deduction and Troy getting things wrong, with short, sharp chapters that make for an easy read. But most of all, I enjoyed the smart writing. The dialogue is crisp and a bombed-out London evocatively described.

Black Out is the first book in the series and with the war coming to a close and a peace that will be challenging once the Iron Curtain comes down, there is plenty of potential character development for Troy in the books that follow – although the books seem to jump around a bit chronologically. There’s lots to enjoy here and I shall certainly check in with Troy again. Black Out gets a three and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: The Royal Secret by Andrew Taylor

The Marwood and Lovett series is such a joy for anyone who loves a good mystery, with a historical setting that takes you there. Taylor’s series brings alive the nitty gritty of everyday life plus the machinations of the powerful at court. Set during the reign of Charles II, The Royal Secret has government agent James Marwood investigate the death of a former colleague, a Mr Abbott. He comes across the man in his cups and full of regret on his way from a gambling house.

When Abbott dies suddenly, it is hard not the think about the opening scene of the novel, where Abbott’s stepdaughter and a young maid plot his death by witchcraft. But the twenty-first century reader knows that the man’s death will be a lot more complicated than that. Another incident sees Marwood getting in Cat Lovett’s bad books when he takes her to the theatre and ogles the leading actress. The two have been friends and associates through several hair-raising adventures and now meet regularly for outings. Dating? I think not.

Cat has inherited her husband’s architecture business and at the theatre, meets her client, Mr Fanshaw, along with a Dutchman, Mr Van Riebeeck, a family connection of Fanshaw’s. Cat is charmed by Van Riebeeck, while Marwood takes an instant dislike to the man. The scene also introduces us to the world of the Dutch in England at the time and the political difficulties posed by rivalry between the Netherlands and France. This rivalry will come closer to home when Cat earns a commission to design a poultry-house for the King’s sister who lives at the French court. So many threads of historical interest.

The plot ramps up with plenty of action – James Marwood seems to attract trouble, as his suspicions around Van Riebeeck grow along with jealousy over Cat’s growing friendship with the man. There’s the usual tension of Cat and Marlow’s see-sawing relationship and Marwood is often in trouble with his own servants, which adds a degree of lightness.

While we get to see kings and their courts close up, their finery and excesses, Taylor doesn’t stint when it comes to describing the grubbiness of ordinary life in the 1600s. Characters puke, piss and evacuate their bowels in fairly graphic ways, not surprisingly when there are growing suspicions of poisonings. He throws in some other quirky details, such as the interest in collecting by the wealthy. Fanshaw, an avid collector, adds a disconsolate and elderly lion to his household, caged in the garden to impress visitors.

It’s a brilliant read, well-researched, pacy and as for the characters, I can’t get enough of Cat and Marwood – they are so lively and interesting. Sometimes you want to bang their heads together. But in a world where it is important to find favour in the right places, not just to succeed but to survive, they are refreshingly themselves and more inquisitive than is good for them. I can’t wait for the next book in the series. This one’s a four and a half out of five from me.