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This is a Thomas Chaloner story, I think I've read them all now and I have to say I liked this one the least. The problem I find with the Susanna Gregory books is that they are always about 100 pages too long. I've figured out the twist in each book about mid-way through and this one was no exception. Basically just find the person/people who are least likely to have done the crime and they're usually your suspects. The fact that I can figure it out makes me think that the protagonist, Chaloner, is just not really that good at being a spy, he fails to work out the mystery and even some of the clues, right through the book, he also is really bad at reading people, and so desperate to have friends that he often overlooks those that are kind to him......what's more he never learns! A good example in this book is the fact that sheets of music kept being found at the scenes of murders. This music is played by various characters but sounds horrible.....hmmm I wonder why that is? could it be that it is a way of passing coded messages? Why of course, why else would it be being mentioned all the time, but does Chaloner pick up on this? Not until 3/4 of the way through the book!!!!! I just feel like the story was being dragged out and although the mystery, motives and 'adventure' are good fun to read, I got bored by how long the whole thing was taking to figure out. Perhaps I have been spoilt by reading the C.J. Sansom Shardlake books, which are excellent, but I just didn't enjoy this one as much of the others.
The Butcher of Smithfield is a novel set in the 17th century written by Susanna Gregory.
The book is set in London of 1663, which is still struggling with the return of Charles II from exile and the problems to do with the recent civil war. London is at the start of the coffee culture and therefore banking movements which would turn the city into the richest part of the British empire. However, at the start of this novel the city is obsessed with making money, reading inflammatory pamphlets and not upsetting the returned king.
The main character of all these books is a spy Thomas Chaloner who works for the Lord Chancellor doing unsavoury and totally illegal things for the government minster. This ambiguity places him in an awkward situation; he isn't an official employee of the government and therefore only gets paid because of the chancellor's largesse. He is therefore always skint and always at the beck and call of the Chancellor and will do whatever he bids. He has an additional problem in that his uncle was one of the men who signed the death warrant for Charles I, so he has to hide under a pseudonym to everyone except his boss.
So when two people die from an overdose of eating cucumbers he is asked to investigate but not for noble reason but simply to stop one of the men's widows from getting the pension money. Chaloner is therefore employed to find out how the men died and only then will he get the money for his actions in Portugal for the previous six months. One of the men is an obnoxious lawyer and the other an artist friend of Chaloners, each are believed to have died from over eating cucumbers, cucumbers in this novel are considered poisonous.
So this novel brings together the various plots and intrigues present in the capital at the time, we have terrible wet weather, rebellion from the Catholics, the proliferation of inflammatory pamphlets and the use of the press to push government plans. These plots and intrigues are many and complex, each has a character attached and soon Chaloner is having to cope with dissident pamphleteers, dodgy newspaper owners, government spies, underworld gangsters and musicians playing unplayable music. I said it was complex and diverse and that is part of the pleasure and problem with this novel, pleasure in the depth placed in the novel and problem because keeping in touch with who is who is quite hard. The underlying principal of the novel is the identity of the butcher of Smithfield, of course speculation over the butcher changes throughout the novel and is only revealed at the very end, or is it?
One storyline and probably the best is the fate of one of Chaloners friend Leybourne who has become infatuated with a very dubious woman. This story runs throughout the book almost from the first chapter and you wonder how it is relevant to the death by cucumbers, of course it does but I won't say how.
Susanna Gregory writes crime novels about a 13th century doctor in Cambridge as well as these novels and I think I prefer these novels then the more famous/popular Matthew Bartholomew novels. These novels have only one lead character and you feel as though know this world better than the 13th century. Perhaps the 17th century is closer in how we view the world than the 13th?
The murder mystery ends in thriller style with everyone running around soaked streets, it's a bit unlikely and unnecessarily over the top but brings the novel to an end and nicely sets up for the next one in the series.
There is also a lovely I suspect in-joke about cucumbers which runs through the book, every person who takes them uses them as a potion against the problem of wind. I always read that line and imagine the author having a small smile and enjoying the connection between cucumber and the odorous effects it produces.
There are also lines about St Paul's needing to be burnt down and that a good fire would be a boon in terms of town planning - hmmm think the author knows what happens a couple of years later.
"The Butcher of Smithfield" is the third in the new series Susanna Gregory is writing - the Thomas Chaloner stories. This comes after the success of the Matthew Bartholomew series set in 14th Century Cambridge.
The Thomas Chaloner books are set in Restoration London and the main character is a spy who previously worked for Cromwell's government and has had to find employment with the new government after the Restoration of the Monarchy.
The political backdrop of the new series is interesting and adds danger to Chaloner's exploits as he does not know who to trust.
In "The Butcher of Smithfield" Chaloner has just returned from spying in Portugal and Spain on behalf of the Queen. His relatively new master, the Earl of Clarendon, is displeased with him and sets him to find the killer of a highly unpopular lawyer who was also corrupt and worked for the powerful butcher of the title. He also worked for the editor of the government news books.
Chaloner has to investigate this death along with the suspicious death of his father's old friend - both of which have been blamed on the victims eating cucumbers. This is also set amongst the backdrop of serious rivalry between the government newsbooks (printed) and the uncensored newsletters (handwritten).
Chaloner is warned off by everyone he questions - the news book editor, the newsletter editor, the printer, colleagues of the murdered lawyer and the Butcher's gang - the Hectors.
There are so many characters and storylines in this book that it can get quite confusing. This could be intentional in that Gregory is trying to show us how overwhelming the whole situation would be for one man to investigate. However it could be quite off-putting.
I did like the character of Chaloner but there wasn't as much humour as is evident in the Matthew Bartholomew series. I missed this humour as it often kept the plots fresh.
The character of Leybourn was faintly amusing as was his infatuation with a woman determined to swindle him out of his property. The character of Thurloe, the ex-spymaster was helpful in explaining some of the political situations.
I enjoyed this book but it wasn't as good as I expected it to be and wasn't as enjoyable as the first in this series. I hope that Gregory rounds out the characters more as the series progresses and interjects more humour as all the politics made it hard-going at times.
I would recommend this book if you have read the other Thomas Chaloner books but it's not a good one to start with as it could put you off. I would actually recommend that new Gregory readers start with the Matthew Bartholomew series as it is more enjoyable and easier to read.
This was a bit of a slow starter and it took me a while to get into which is not usually the case with Susanna Gregory. I enjoyed it but it wasn't one of her best.
This review is also on Ciao.co.uk under mogdred1.
Thomas Chaloner, just returned from a clandestine excursion to Spain and Portugal on behalf of the Queen, finds London dank and grey under leaden skies. He finds many things changed, including the Government slapping a tax on printed newspapers. Hand written news reports escape the duty, and the rivalry between the producers of the two conduits of news is the talk of the coffee houses with the battle to be first with any sort of intelligence escalating into violent rivalry. And it seems that a number of citizens who have eaten cucumbers have come to untimely deaths. It is such a death which Chaloner is despatched to investigate; that of a lawyer with links to 'the Butcher of Smithfield', a shady trader surrounded by a fearsome gang of thugs who terrorise the streets well beyond the confines of Smithfield market. Chaloner doesn't believe that either this death or the others are caused by a simple vegetable, but to prove his theory he has to untangle the devious means of how news is gathered and he has to put his personal safety aside as he tries to penetrate the rumour mill surrounding the Butcher of Smithfield and discover his real identity.