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Somewhere in the soot-stained ruins of Restoration London, a killer has gone to ground…
The Great Fire has ravaged London, wreaking destruction and devastation wherever its flames spread. Now, guided by the incorruptible Fire Court, the city is slowly rebuilding, but times are volatile and danger is only ever a heartbeat away.
James Marwood, son of a traitor, is thrust into this treacherous environment when his ailing father claims to have stumbled upon a murdered woman in the very place where the Fire Court sits. Then his father is run down and killed. Accident? Or another murder…?
Determined to uncover the truth, Marwood turns to the one person he can trust – Cat Lovett, the daughter of a despised regicide. Marwood has helped her in the past. Now it’s her turn to help him. But then comes a third death… and Marwood and Cat are forced to confront a vicious and increasingly desperate killer whose actions threaten the future of the city itself.
The Fire Court is the sequel to Andrew Taylor’s The Ashes of London, an historical mystery that opened dramatically during the Great Fire of London and then proceeded to unravel a tale of murder and betrayal stretching back decades, to the reign of Cromwell and Charles I. This novel reunites the protagonists of the earlier book – James Marwood and Cat Lovett – as they become entangled in the complicated business of the Fire Court, a body set up to oversee and settle any disputes that arise as a result of the rebuilding of the city after the fire. With so many buildings damaged or destroyed, Parliament is eager to rebuild as soon as possible, and the Fire Court is charged with helping that along by settling legal disputes about leases, land boundaries and other matters pertaining to property ownership. With greed and corruption snaking through the business of the court, the stakes are high for many – and for some, are high enough to commit murder.
Seven months after the events of the previous book, James Marwood is comfortably settled and is prospering financially in his posts as clerk to Joseph Williamson (Under-Secretary of State to Lord Arlington) and clerk to the Board of Red Cloth, a department attached closely to the king’s household. He is still caring for his elderly, mentally unstable father, but early in the story, Mr. Marwood senior dies in an accident leaving his son with little other than some confused ramblings about his mother, the rookeries and a woman decked out like a cheap whore in a yellow dress.
Cat Lovett, who ran from her well-to-do family in order to avoid marriage to her smarmy cousin (who raped her) is still in hiding and has adopted the name and persona of Jane Hakesby, cousin and servant to Simon Hakesby, a well-respected architect. Cat is a talented draughtsman herself, although as a woman, the profession is barred to her, but Hakesby – who is not in the best of health – allows her to assist him on occasion and to make her own designs under his auspices. At the beginning of the novel, she is attending the proceedings of the Fire Court, partly to take notes (and to practice her newly learned shorthand) and partly to attend her master, who is there to watch out for the interests of one of that day’s petitioners.
Marwood and Cat have not encountered each other in the intervening months and don’t expect to do so, as they move in very different circles. But they are drawn together again after Williamson instructs Marwood to accompany him to view the body of a woman found dead in the ruins of what seems to have been the cellar of a house. The woman’s garish clothing suggests she may have been a whore, but that isn’t the case; she’s identified as a wealthy widow, which explains the government’s interest in the woman’s fate. Charged with finding out as much as he can about the murder, Marwood is suddenly reminded of his late father’s last ramblings – which it seems may not have been ramblings at all. But while Williamson wants answers, Chiffinch, Keeper of the King’s Private Closet (and Marwood’s other employer) wants things left alone; but Marwood is already too involved to stop looking for answers – which come at a very high personal cost.
As in the previous book, Marwood’s portions of the tale are told in the first person, while Cat’s are in the third, and I had no problems whatsoever with the juxtaposition of styles. We find out a little more about both characters here, as they do about each other; in The Ashes of London, they encountered each other only briefly although their stories intersected frequently, and in the dramatic climax of the story, Marwood saved Cat’s life. It’s this that prompts her to go against Hakesby’s wishes when Marwood asks for her help, and leads to her being drawn into intrigue and danger as she, too, becomes involved in the investigation into the murder.
My one criticism about The Ashes of London was that I didn’t quite feel as though I got to know either Cat or Marwood, but here, they’re starting to feel more fleshed out. Marwood is a pleasant young man who just wants to live a comfortable, quiet life as he tries to live down his father’s reputation as a radical and former Fifth Monarchist. I sympathised with his conflicting feelings for his difficult, sometimes demanding father, and with the dilemma of his divided loyalties and the need to make a choice between his two employers. Cat continues to be prickly and defensive, but her position is a precarious one; she cannot risk being found by her family or she will be forced into an unwanted marriage. She’s observant and sharp-tongued, brave and loyal, and I was pleased to see the slowly developing trust between her and Marwood.
Although I found the book a little slow to start, I was hooked within a few short chapters and eager to see where things were going. Mr. Taylor’s research is impeccable and has clearly been extensive; his descriptions of post-Fire London are incredibly evocative, and he paints a wonderfully vivid picture of a city in a state of flux, where poverty is rife and life is a daily struggle for many. It’s not essential to have read The Ashes of London in order to enjoy and understand this novel, although I’d recommend it in order to gain a fuller appreciation of the historical context and of the evolution of the relationship between Cat and Marwood. The Fire Court is a complex, absorbing read, full of political and legal intrigue, high-stakes situations for our two protagonists, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Fans of intricate, well-written historical mysteries will find much to enjoy, and I’m eager to see what’s in store for Marwood and Lovett in the next book in the series.