Two young girls plot a murder by witchcraft. Soon afterwards a government clerk dies painfully in mysterious circumstances. His colleague James Marwood is asked to investigate – but the task brings unexpected dangers.
Meanwhile, architect Cat Hakesby is working for a merchant who lives on Slaughter Street, where the air smells of blood and a captive Barbary lion prowls the stables. Then a prestigious new commission arrives. Cat must design a Poultry House for the woman that the King loves most in all the world.
Unbeknownst to all, at the heart of this lies a royal secret so explosive that it could not only rip apart England but change the entire face of Europe…
The events of The Royal Secret – book five in Andrew Taylor’s series of mysteries set in seventeenth century London during the reign of Charles II – take place around four years after the Great Fire and our first meeting with James Marwood and Catherine – Cat – Lovett. Theirs is an unusual relationship; they’ve saved each other’s lives and reputations more than once, and both have good reason to be distrustful of others, yet they’ve formed a somewhat uneasy but genuine bond of something stronger than friendship, but which doesn’t always contain any of the warmer feelings friendship might provide. There’s a strong undercurrent of attraction there, too, something neither of them is particularly willing to acknowledge, especially Cat, whose traumatic personal history and unhappy marriage to a much older man, mean she is more determined than ever to never again give up her independence.
Cat has taken over the running of the business left by her late husband – a draftsman and architect – while Marwood continues to do well in his post as secretary to (and sometimes spy/investigator for) Joseph Williamson, Under Secretary of State to Lord Arlington. They’ve started to see each other every couple of weeks – to take walks, to dine, to visit the theatre – and it’s during one of the latter excursions (after Cat gets annoyed when she sees Marwood looking appreciatively at a comely orange-seller) that they chance to meet Mr. Fanshawe, a merchant and a client of Cat’s, and his companion, Henryk Van Riebeek (to whom Marwood takes an instant dislike because he starts flirting with Cat.)
Marwood encounters Fanshawe again few days later, when he is instructed to retrieve some confidential files that were removed from Lord Arlington’s office by one of his clerks, Richard Abbott. Abbott has died suddenly and had not returned the files beforehand, and when a visit to Abbot’s lodgings proves fruitless – all Marwood and his servant find there are dead rats – he learns that Abbott’s wife – who was formerly married to Fanshawe’s son – and stepdaughter have gone to live with Fanshawe at his home in Slaughter Street. Marwood pays Fanshawe a visit in order to retrieve the files, and when looking them over later that day, uncovers some discrepancies which only intensity his suspicions as to the nature of Abbott’s death. He discovers that Abbott had run up huge gambling debts at the Blue Bush – and while there to see what he can find out, Marwood catches sight of a familiar face – Van Riebeek – although he’s going by a different name. This fact, in addition to the dutchman’s familial connection to Abbott (Abbott’s wife is Van Riebeek’s sister) convinces Marwood that he is involved in some way – and also that there is more going on than meets the eye; that what he found in the files, Abbott’s murder and Van Riebeek’s hiding under an assumed name are all related somehow, and that whatever links them is far more serious than he’d at first thought.
Meanwhile, Cat has been commissioned by Lord Arlington to design a poultry house for the king’s sister Minette (who is married to the Duc d’Orléans, brother of Louis XIV), and is asked to travel to France with the plans and to have a scale model built to take with her as well. Once arrived in France however, she can’t help wondering if there is some other reason for her presence there – and whether the interest Van Riebeek had shown in her before her departure, had been genuine.
As is the case with the other books in the series, the mystery in this one incorporates actual historical events and takes place (mostly) in a London still being rebuilt after the Great Fire. Mr. Taylor skilfully weaves together fact and fiction wherin uncertain political alliances, treachery and intrigue all come into play as Cat inadvertently becomes caught up in the very mystery Marwood is investigating. Although I wasn’t sure what that mystery was going to be to start with – with mentions of poison, witchcraft, a caged lion and disgruntled servants, there’s a lot going on! – I was nonetheless caught up in the world of Restoration London the author evokes so well.
Cat and Marwood are complex, flawed, three-dimensional individuals and their relationship – which veers from dislike to affection and back again – is frustrating and well written. I appreciate Cat’s determination to make her way in an unusual (for a woman) profession in a man’s world, and how much Marwood has grown – is continuing to grow – as a character. He’s perhaps more cynical than he was, and he’s learned how to play the game with those who are more powerful than he is, but at heart, he’s a good, decent man while very much a man of his time.
Excellent research, clever plotting and fascinating historical detail combine to make The Royal Secret another excellent instalment in the Marwood and Lovett series. I really hope there’s more to come