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Historical mysteries combine two of my favourite genres, those of history and crime. In this genre some historical periods seem to be less popular than others, the Restoration being one of them. In this series which begins with the Great Fire of London, Edward Marston introduces two very different detectives: the charming Christopher Redmayne, working as an architect to rebuild the ruined city, and Jonathan Bale, a constable with decidedly puritanical leanings.
Christopher Redmayne and Jonathan Bale are hardly like-minded individuals being almost polar opposites in every aspect of their lives. They first meet following the Great Fire when Bale tries to apprehend a pickpocket only to be foiled in the attempt by Redmayne. That might have been the end of it but they are destined to meet again, firstly in the grounds of the house of Sir Ambrose Northcott, for whom Christopher Redmayne has been retained as an architect and where he sets a trap to catch a couple of thieves. Their investigative partnership, however, begins when Sir Ambrose is found brutally murdered forcing the two men to reluctantly join forces to try to solve the crime, and which sees the pair embark on a journey which takes them from the corrupt underbelly of the city right into the court of the restored monarch, King Charles II.
Edward Marston is a prolific writer of over 50 historical mysteries to date and as I've previously read and enjoyed his Domesday historical mystery series set in the medieval period as well as a few of his Elizabethan whodunnits, when I picked this book up in the library, I anticipated an engrossing, entertaining and educational read which is precisely what I got.
As Edward Marston is a popular author, copies of this and the other books in the series can probably be borrowed from your own local library or used copies picked up online from 1p plus postage. This book is also available in Kindle format for £4.59.
The story begins with a vivid description of the Fire from its beginning in Pudding Lane to the smouldering embers of a city in ruins seen first through the eyes of parish constable Jonathan Bale and then from Christopher Redmayne's architect's perspective which gives the reader a flavour of these two very diverse characters. There is also a map at the beginning of the book which shows Restoration London circa 1666 which proved very useful in pinpointing various locations mentioned within the plot.
Edward Marston is a former history lecturer turned author and his in-depth knowledge of his subject is evident on every page. He creates a wonderful sense of time and place with lots of interesting little titbits of historical trivia dropped into the text which adds authenticity to the story. Early on in the book Jonathan apprehends a thief digging in the garden of one of the burned out houses. As the Fire of London spread further and further, people apparently buried those treasured possessions they couldn't carry with them and which then provided rich pickings for the looters who searched the wreckage of the city grabbing what they could before the rightful owners returned.
These snippets of information don't impede the flow of the story, however, which romps along at a cracking pace and once the investigation really gets under way, we're introduced to a great cast of characters who bring Restoration London to life and flesh out the story into a real page turner with plenty of twists and turns of the plot plus a few red herrings to keep the reader guessing the identity of the murderer for most of the book. It's worth mentioning that the investigation follows a logical path and Redmayne and Bale reach their conclusions through analysis of the clues rather than inspired guesswork which can sometimes be the case with less conscientious authors.
The two main protagonists, Redmayne and Bale, are excellently drawn characters, diametrically opposed and representing the clash of two schools of thought current during the Restoration: the puritan still mourning the end of Cromwell's Commonwealth and the more flamboyant cavalier enjoying the less restrictive life under the restored monarchy. Jonathan is a bit of a sober-sides, a staunch upholder of the law whose puritanism leads him to think that maybe the fire was God's way of clearing out the corruption of the city, whereas Christopher, the younger son of the Dean of Gloucester and as young and handsome as Jonathan is middle-aged and plain, is far more light hearted in outlook, although he's very serious about his chosen profession and is keen to help in the rebuilding of London.
Both men are innately decent and even if they do come from very different ends of the political spectrum of the day, they share a common goal in seeing that justice is done. Christopher Redmayne is charming and well educated, coming from a privileged background, though his older brother is a far more dissolute member of society who would fit in well with the rather lax moral attitudes of the court of King Charles. Jonathan Bale, on the other hand, is a stolid, God-fearing man, with a loving wife and family and a dedication to his position as parish constable. He initially eschews any partnership with Redmayne who represents all that Bale holds to be wrong with England under a king whose court he considers morally reprehensible. As the investigation progresses, both men have to reassess their original opinions of each other.
Whilst checking out Edward Marston for this review, I discovered that early on in his career, he wrote for TV including episodes of Z Cars and that early training has obviously rubbed off on his writing style which is pacey and realistic. The author doesn't make the mistake of creating historical characters with twenty-first century sensibilities. His protagonists think and behave as people from that time would typically do. This doesn't make for a dry read full of historical dates and events, however, as the author has a lightness of touch which gives a wonderful sense of the joie de vivre which must have been prevalent at the time after all the austerity under Oliver Cromwell's protectorate.
This is the first book in an ongoing series so there is some necessary scene setting interspersed with the action but background information on Redmayne and Bale is kept to a minimum and doesn't overshadow the case in hand. This is a thoroughly enjoyable first story in the series which left me keen to read more about the further investigations of Messrs Redmayne and Bale. They make an unlikely but a very entertaining duo.