Thursday, June 07, 2007

Blood on the Strand - Susanna Gregory

This is Gregory's second book concerning the 16th century spy Thomas Chaloner. Originally a spy for Oliver Cromwell in Holland, Chaloner has returned to England in the wake of the Restoration to continue his career in England. With links to the old government and a relative who signed Charles I's death warrant, few trust Chaloner and he has picked up several enemies. By the end of the previous book he had managed to secure employment but as this second installment goes to show, this does not offer Chaloner guaranteed protection.

In this book Chaloner is faced with investigating an apparent attempt on the King's life, the murder of an influential merchant and the various schemes afoot to discredit his employer, the Earl of Clarendon. Seemingly involved in these various plots are the Company of Barber Surgeons, the Earl of Bristol, the Guinea Company and several of his spy colleagues. Can Chaloner protect his employer, save those falsely accused of the merchant's murder and discover why one of the Royal physicians appears to have made an attempt on the monarch's life? In a world of courtly intrigues, when it is fashionable to attend dissections of human bodies and where England is quietly simmering with religious tension anything could happen.

I read the first book in this series (A Conspiracy of Violence) last year and couldn't put it down. I'd discovered Gregory through her 'Matthew Bartholomew' series set in Medieval Cambridge (the 13th in this series has recently been published). I was expecting more of the same with this installment but have to admit to being disappointed. The story seems incredibly slow and laborious and doesn't seem to go anywhere much of the time. I feel that perhaps Gregory was trying to include too many different plot lines and too many twists and turns. I did find my head ached at times trying to work out what was going on and which particular investigation Chaloner was working on at any one time. I appreciate that in the spying game you can't really trust anyone but perhaps this was somewhat overdone.

It's a shame because Gregory was using some fascinating historical bit and pieces as her backdrop. The fashion for watching dissections and the morality of this, the Catholic plot in Ireland, the work of a 17th century physician, the intrigues of the court at this date, the slave trade. They were all in there, for better or for worse. When you reach the end of the book there are several pages about the historical background of the book. I really felt that Gregory had picked up on a lot of good original sources when planning out this story but was too desperate to fit them all in.

The slow pace for much of the book coupled with the sheer volume of information that needed to be taken in are perhaps my biggest criticisms. The characters on the whole were believable and Gregory uses a good range. From the jealous May whose out to destroy Chaloner, to the larger than life Silence Webb, they are all there. I didn't feel the book patronised me and generally there were definitely some great sections. This book needed re-working to really let those sections breathe and to make the pace a bit less like wading through treacle.

I would only recommend this book if you have enjoyed the first installment of the 'Chaloner' series as you will need to read it to continue with the series at all (it seems clear to me that several plot points in this book will be picked up in the next book).

*3 stars*

Other books by Susanna Gregory include:
*A Conspiracy of Violence: First book in the Thomas Chaloner series
*The Butcher of Smithfield: Third book in the Thomas Chaloner series
*The Westminster Poisoner: Fourth book in the Thomas Chaloner series

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