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Saturday 21 March 2020

‘The Bear Pit’ by S. G. MacLean

Published by Quercus,
6 February 2020.
ISBN:  978-1-78747361-4 (PB)
It is 1656 Cromwellian England and the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell is more securely ensconced than ever as ruler of the country without Parliament. However, more and more people are becoming unhappy with the situation and some of them are coming together to deal with what is effectively a dictatorship. Alliances are being formed between unlikely groups, such as Royalists and Levellers, and some of them are planning assassination although their attempts are mostly laughably inept. Information about these plans is inundating the office of Cromwell’s Chief Secretary Thurloe, and there is too much to deal with. Much has to be put to one side, including one plan which is brought to him by Captain Damian Seeker, Thurlow’s right hand man, investigator and enforcer. Reluctantly, Seeker accepts Thurlow’s decision and instead, acting on information, takes part in a raid on a gaming house in Southwark. There to his surprise, he encounters Sir Thomas Faithly (who featured in the author’s previous Destroying Angel) who had been released from imprisonment in the Tower of London on condition that he insert himself into the company of royalists and report any interesting gossip to Thurlow. He had simply gone to the gaming den because he was bored. But there is another discovery to be made; in a stone structure nearby, is the body of an elderly man, horribly mangled, his wounds so grotesque that they can only have been made by a bear. But how can that be? Cromwell had outlawed bear-baiting several years before. And who was the man?
Seeker, along with Faithly, embarks on a search for the truth of this horrible death. And this search leads them both into the higher reaches of the society of the time with many names that will be familiar to those with some knowledge of the history of the period – Andrew Marvell, Pepys, the Tradescants, John Evelyn. Meanwhile a separate narrative strand does involve the conspirators about whom Seeker has warned Thurloe. We know who they are and the names they go by and we are aware of their determination and their attempts to assassinate Cromwell. We also encounter many characters from the earlier novels in the sequence, Seeker’s own daughter Manon, the radical Elias Ellingworth and his sister Maria, Lady Anne Winter Royalist widow of the Cromwellian supporter, Seeker’s former comrade in the bitter European wars, Samuel Kent, the young lawyer Laurence Ingoldby and others. A new and important character is the beautiful and scheming Frenchwoman., Clemence Bargueil, manipulative and by no means to be trusted. And there is the bear – where is it?
There is a highly surprising revelation as to the identity of one of the conspirators. The novel ends with a highly dramatic scene, and a coda that indicates that there will be more to come.

The author has won prizes for the quality of her work and the depth of her research. Very much recommended.
Reviewer: Radmila May

Shona (S G) MacLean was born in 1968 in Inverness and grew up in the Scottish Highlands where her parents were hoteliers. She is the niece of world-famous thriller writer Alistair MacLean. She obtained an MA and PH.D. in History from Aberdeen University. She began to write fiction while bringing up her four children (and Labrador) on the Banffshire coast. She has now returned to live in the Highlands, where her husband is a head teacher.

Radmila May was born in the U.S. but has lived in the U.K. since she was seven apart from seven years in The Hague. She read law at university but did not go into practice. Instead she worked for many years for a firm of law publishers and still does occasional work for them including taking part in a substantial revision and updating of her late husband’s legal practitioners’ work on Criminal Evidence published late 2015. She has also contributed short stories with a distinctly criminal flavour to two of the Oxford Stories anthologies published by Oxpens Press – a third story is to be published shortly in another Oxford Stories anthology – and is now concentrating on her own writing.

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