It is March 1861, and the Merry Monarch, King Charles II, is visiting Oxford. This is not such good news for Luke Sandys, Chief Officer or Constable of the Oxford Bailiffs, as Oxford is a tough and tense place to police even without a royal visit; the relationship between town and gown or the townsfolk and University has always been difficult. This book is a murder mystery with much additional detail, as Lynch surrounds Luke with situations of danger and confusion, as maintaining peace and good order in the University town is at best tricky. He is also shown in a setting with a unsatisfactory marriage and a secret longing for a Catholic widow, as well as an unfulfilled regret that he left his own studies early. I was very pleased to be given the opportunity to read and review this well written and absorbing book.
The book opens with a Prologue covering a hold up to the royal party, as a Trooper fires his gun to move on some cattle. This seemingly trivial incident is witnessed by Captain Edwin Sandys, brother to Luke, but no one is aware of the implications. Luke is meanwhile engaged in a routine police duty, as he checks on an unlicensed tavern where a political meeting is being held. These are tense times as the King is not long on the throne after the rule of Cromwell, and the heir apparent, his brother James, has been exposed as a Catholic. This group which meets in the tavern is a new society fiercely opposed to the “Popish Plot”, lead by a Member of Parliament, William Harbord. Suspicion and tension sometimes breaks out into mob violence, and more than one citizen of the town becomes involved in activities which gives Luke headaches. When a murder is discovered one night, Luke is determined to discover the guilty party, but even his use of the most up to date methods of detection cannot be relied on when deliberate attempts are made to obscure the truth. Characters ranging from a young dairymaid to an ex mayor with an agenda fill the accurately described setting. Such real life names as Samuel Pepys and Christopher Wren are carefully placed throughout the novel and there is so much research in the book, as even the stone used for finishing a college is accounted for in an interesting story which reveals much about the social conditions of the time.
This is a fascinating novel with some exceptional writing. I found it absorbing and challenging, as each character really lived fully in their setting. The beauty and the contrasting dirt which probably prevailed in a crowded city, as even more people were crammed into a small space makes it easy to picture each scene. The convoluted mystery surrounding the death of a man in a public is carefully constructed puzzle which fits well into the novel as a whole, and this is a skilled author writing a well balanced book. I recommend it as a an excellent historical novel backed with excellent research and a real appreciation of character.
Today I gave my work in progress notes on my conference paper on Eva Peron. I think that the general feeling was that I should emphasise the musical “Evita” as it deals most directly with the image of the woman who for a brief time held such sway in Argentina. The good news is that Northernvicar has manged to book us seats for the Regent’s Park production in the summer, which I am sure will be excellent. Watch this space for more!