Killing Beauties by Pete Langman – she-spies in Cromwell’s London – dangerous streets and people
Spies are fascinating, and spies in an historical period unburdened by difficult hi tech are even more involving. In this book the fact that the spies are very much women adds to its attraction, as both Susan and Diana spend the first part of the book using their unique talents to fool those around them. This book is set in the time of Oliver Cromwell’s ascendancy, in 1655. King Charles I is dead, executed by Cromwell and others who believed that it was the only way to end a series of battles, civil wars that had divided the not only the country but also families and friends. This is a book about a brutal time, when Charles who would be in time acknowledged as king Charles II lives in France, partly at the charity of the French king. Susan and others are maintaining not only the hope that this young man will return to his dangerous kingdom, but also making it possible that his supporters who will welcome him survive and thrive. In a state where a security system is being established, where casual brutality is accepted on the streets of London, where women are not valued for their intelligence or abilities, Susan must survive and act. This is an exciting novel, full of telling detail and vivid descriptions of a dirty and disturbing London, and very memorable characters. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this excellent and exciting book.
This book begins with a powerful man in Cromwell’s service. John Thurloe is busy with a suspect, torturing him while receiving intelligence of the planned arrival of two further agents of the king’s cause. As Cromwell establishes himself as the effective ruler of the kingdom, two women come together in an inn and receive their orders from Susan Hyde’s brother, the influential Edward Hyde, chief advisor to Charles Stuart in exile. The women, especially Susan, realise that the letter in its intricate packaging contains orders that not only put them at incredible risk, but will also challenge their abilities and reputations. It is soon obvious that Susan is a woman of quick thinking and resource, as they pull off an impressive stunt which makes them “disappear”. There is a certain grim humour that runs throughout the book, as the women carry out small plots and actions that mislead and confuse the men around them. As Susan now has to plan a campaign that will involve a long term deception on a chief official, she obtains supplies and information that will give her access to the trust of her target. The men who work for Thurloe discover the benefits and challenges of pushing the edge of espionage and gathering knowledge of the supporters of exiled Charles.
This is a sometimes shocking, sometimes surprising and always entertaining book. Susan trades on the fact that many women, lower class and working in the inns and back streets of London, were basically invisible and often fair game for men with a small amount of power and or money. Adopting one of the few roles that allowed women to move around London without suspicion, that of healer and midwife, she manages to gain access to men and places. There is a really special impact to this book, full of evident research which does not overwhelm the fiction, giving insight into the life of the most ordinary of people, whether apprentice, female innkeeper or others. This book is a superb picture of a troubled time in Britain’s history, whether spymaster or nearly invisible woman. Exciting, entertaining and always enjoyable, this is a novel which lifts history off the page, and is historical fiction at its best.