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Published by Quercus, 9 July
2020. ISBN: 978-1-78747-362-1(HB)
This fifth title in the series set during the reign of
Oliver Cromwell and featuring Damian Seeker, right hand man and enforcer for
Cromwell’s Secretary of State John Thurloe, mostly takes place in 1658 in
Bruges in Flanders. The city had been of considerable importance during the
Middle Ages but was in decline by the 17th century. Nonetheless it
was there that the young Charles II has established himself, along with his
impoverished and gradually diminishing followers, while spinning hopelessly
botched plots to re-establish the Stuarts on the throne of England. Seeker is
there as well in his capacity as Thurloe’s spy; his cover is that he is working
as a carpenter (and calling himself John Carpenter, not so uncommon at a time
when people were still taking their surnames from their trades) which enables
him to wander freely in the city to seek work and make inquiries where he
thinks fit. And to liaise with one of the King’s bedraggled courtiers who is in
fact an informer.
Now Seeker receives
two letters from England, one in code to say that a ‘she-intelligencer’ is on
the way to Bruges to find out who is the informer in Charles’s court, the other
(not in code) to tell him that the brother of the woman he loves, the
strong-willed Maria Ellingworth, sickened by Cromwell’s abandonment of any
pretence at parliamentary democracy and by the ever-harsher persecution of
those who disagree with his rule, is not only going to take his own wife and
family to Massachusetts but also Maria who, however, is insisting that she will
follow Seeker to the Lowlands.
In fact, several
women feature strongly in this story (but not Maria). There is the nun Sister
Bridget of the Engels Klooster (the English Cloister); albeit sharp-tongued but
liking a good gossip as well as anyone. The devoted Royalist Lady Hildred
Beaumont who, along with her maid, has come to Bruges; she is as sharp-tongued
as Sister Bridget and in fact they know each other from earlier times. But just
what is the purpose of her journey? There is Ruth Jones who sought refuge at
first in the Engels Klooster and then in the House of Lamentations (in fact, a
high-class brothel although Ruth is safer there than she had been in the
convent). Ruth’s brother has come to Bruges to find her but his inquiries at
the convent are fatal for him. And there is Lady Anne Winter, who has been
Seeker’s antagonist in earlier novels.
I am as impressed by this
novel as I have been by the writer’s earlier novels in both this series and the
previous Alexander Seaton Quartet. Not only is the narrative backed up by
research but the atmosphere of Bruges with its canals and narrow streets and
vast numbers of religious establishments is brilliantly conveyed and the
numerous characters, some familiar from earlier titles in the series, others
new to us, are all well-drawn. Apparently, this is the last in the Seeker
series, but I wonder if that is really so. There is a sense that there are yet
more stories to be told about these characters. Highly recommended.
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.
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.