Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Butcher of Smithfield by Susanna Gregory

Chaloner has finally returned to London after a dangerous mission in Spain and Portugal. Yet in only a few months there have been many changes. In particular the editor of the official printed newsletter has been replaced and a tax has been placed on all printed material. The ousted editor has set up a rival in the form of handwritten newsletters, which are exempt from this new tax. The coffee houses are buzzing with the feud and accusations of espionage and theft abound. If that wasn't enough his dear friend Maylord has died of eating green cucumbers.
Yet Chaloner has no time to grieve as the Lord Chancellor is keen for him to uncover the truth behind the death of a solicitor named Newburne. With ties to the crime lord of Smithfield, known as the Butcher, and a man who made no friends in any quarter Chaloner has more suspects than clues. What's more, Newburne also seems to have conveniently died of eating green cucumbers....
With at least two suspicious deaths, apparently unlinked, a wardrobe full of moths, no pay and a lucky hat, Chaloner sets off to solve his friend's death, the death of Newburne and hopefully get paid.

This is the third book of the Chaloner series set in Restoration London following the fortunes of an ex-Cromwellian spy under the new Royalist regime. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and really felt as if I was wandering the late 17th century streets of London. As always Gregory has done her research, the plot involving the cucumbers was particularly clever. At the time green fruit and vegetables were treated with such mistrust that for someone to die having eaten green cucumbers would seem perfectly possible. Other good historically accurate touches include the fear of Catholics and those that supported the old Cromwellian government. People like this were felt to undermine the Church and King and the very fabric of daily life. On top of this the popularity of the coffee houses and censorship of the press are also extremely accurate.

The plot has plenty of twists and turns to keep you guessing how the whole picture fits together right till the end. Just when you think you know what's happening a new thread will interrupt and throw off your conclusions. I for one did not see the ending coming!

The problem that Gregory faces is that when we think of spies, we think of James Bond and all the gadgets he uses. Chaloner has no access to special equipment and apart from one special item he owns, he has to make to with whatever he has to hand and his wits. It means that so much more thought has to be put into the plot so that it can be exhilarating, fast-paced and sufficiently clever to give the reader a thrill when reading it. I for one feel that Gregory achieves this. Added to that her characters are not flat, two-dimensional creatures, but well rounded, flawed, normal human beings.

I would definitely recommend this book, and indeed the whole series thus far, to anyone who wants to try and spy story without flashy gadgets and incredible amounts of good fortune for the lead character. It is also highly recommended for anyone with a passion 17th century. If you like intrigue, politics and action, this book has it all.

*4 stars*

Other books by Susanna Gregory include:
*A Conspiracy of Violence: First book in the Thomas Chaloner series
*Blood on the Strand: Second book in the Thomas Chaloner series
*The Westminster Poisoner: Fourth book in the Thomas Chaloner series

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