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Review: The Ashes of London, by Andrew Taylor
HarperCollins, 2016. 482 pp. $27

Given its numerical sequence, the year 1666 evokes portents of deviltry in many superstitious people who lived then, so the Great Fire that ravages London can only have a malign explanation. The cause isn’t hard to figure, for within living memory, Oliver Cromwell had a king’s head struck off, an act that still divides the country, and which many assume has invited divine vengeance.

But the heavens have no monopoly on violent expression, for the dead monarch’s spendthrift, wastrel son has regained his throne, fixated on eliminating anyone connected with his father’s execution. Suffice to say that English folk have myriad motives for killing or extorting one another, as if they believed the fire hasn’t gone far enough, and further destruction requires their assistance.

The Great Fire of London, by an unknown painter, presumed seventeenth century (courtesy Museum of London via Wikimedia Commons)

James Marwood, a young clerk of quick wit but poor prospects, must negotiate this political and social maelstrom against terrific odds. In the ashes of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a man’s body has been found, stabbed expertly in the neck, with his thumbs bound together. James must investigate while maintaining his clerkship to an irascible, suspicious newspaper publisher who hobnobs with the great. Naturally, the great take a keen interest in the murder case. Naturally too, their number keeps growing, their interests conflict, and they each take James aside to enlist his aid, bargains in which he has no choice. Not only must he please them to remain employed, what little income he has must support his ailing father, who served five years in prison for his association to the regicide faction, a fact no one has forgotten.

Should James disappoint any of his taskmasters, Marwood père will likely dangle from a rope, and James may follow after him. Further–and what a brilliant stroke–James dislikes his father, a difficult, selfish man who cares only for his apocalyptic visions, and who, in his half-demented state, is liable to wander off, preaching seditious monologues that will bring the king’s soldiers running. So James has absolutely no freedom in which to move; he’s caught between many fires, not just the one burning the city.

Meanwhile, there’s Catherine Lovett, a young woman whose father also belonged to the regicide faction and has spent years on the run. Catherine, or Cat, as she’s called, lives with her aunt, uncle, and lecherous cousin, but through a trusted servant, has been trying to find her father. Like James, she has mixed feelings about her paternal relative, but she’s miserable where she is, and he’s her only surviving family, so she hopes that by reuniting, life will improve for both of them.

Fat chance. As the novel begins, Cat and James cross paths as the flames engulf St. Paul’s, into which she tries to run, and from which he restrains her, receiving a nasty bite on the hand for his pains. But he gets off easy, compared with others who cross her, and though you could say they mostly deserve it, she’s not someone to trifle with. And you can bet that as James penetrates the mystery of the corpse at St. Paul’s, and of others to follow, their paths will converge again.

How that narrative unfolds is one of many pleasures The Ashes of London offers. Another is the prose, which conveys the place and time so completely that you feel you’re in it.

St. Paul’s had given up a number of its dead because of the Fire, for tombs had burst open in the heat and flagstones cracked apart. Some corpses were little more than skeletons. Others were clothed in dried flesh in various stages of decay. . . . The souvenir hunters had been at work, and there were bodies that had lost fingers, toes, hands or feet; one lacked a skull.

Taylor pays particular attention to social class, one way the novel feels alive. Cat, who grew up in a comfortable home and who flees her wealthy aunt and uncle’s house, must become a servant and go into hiding. For the first time, she walks alone in London and becomes a target for any man who cares to touch her or make lewd remarks, which underlines one difference between rich and poor. (That said, when Cat was with her aunt and uncle, she was betrothed to a titled suitor who seemed little better.) Similarly, James’s investigation would be complicated enough without having to bow and scrape before people who don’t condescend to notice his presence unless they wish to bully him–or, conversely, people of lower station than himself who act servile but may be untrustworthy. All this, Taylor handles deftly.

For all that, I wish he’d expunged the clichés that occasionally mar his narrative. (“Cat could not speak. Her happiness was sponged away. Fear made it hard to breathe.”) He’s a much better writer than that, and for the most part–the vastly greater part–it shows in The Ashes of London.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.