Old St Paul’s Cathedral stands at the centre of this complex historical murder mystery that vividly transports the reader to the London of the Great Fire and its immediate aftermath. Its first chapter literally – pardon the pun – crackles, as the old edifice is reduced to ruins and ashes amidst the roaring of the flames. This is where the novel’s dual protagonists – James Marwood and Catherine Lovett – encounter each other for the first time, and not for the last. It is a novel that plays with identities, real and assumed, weaving fictional characters into the lives of historical personages, with deception and subterfuge at its heart. Rape, murder, greed and religious fanaticism are given free rein to wreak their bloody work, whilst the spectre of the Fifth Monarchists stalks the world of Restoration London.
Both Marwood and Lovett have familial
skeletons in the cupboard that leave them vulnerable to manipulation from
without, and the reader’s sympathy is engaged as they attempt to find a place
in the world for themselves whilst being employed as tools in the stratagems of
others. Catherine Lovett makes for an unusual female lead, being possessed of a
taste for architectural drawing, but proving to be as free and easy with the
knife, as she is deft with the pen.
The book is lengthy, but the shortness of the chapters and the pace of the prose ensures that the reader’s attention is not lost. It is likely, however, to appeal more to readers of historical fiction than to those with a taste purely for crime and mystery, and although I have seen comparisons drawn between this volume and the works of C.J. Sansom, I must say that I prefer this one. That said, that may, at least in part, be down to my personal preference for the world of Restoration England over its Tudor equivalent, a preference expressed in my forthcoming novel The Gwennel Girl: A Cornish Mystery (to be notified of its discounted release, please click here to sign up to my mailing list).
This is the second volume that I’ve read devoted specifically to the subject of writing historical fiction, and it is the better of the two by far. It provides a good practical nuts and bolts approach to the crafting of stories in this most demanding of loose and baggy genres, focusing primarily upon the novel. If exercises should be your thing, then Darwin provides plenty of them peppered throughout the text to get your creative juices flowing. Her lengthy experience as both a tutor of creative writing and a novelist truly shows through here, and whereas some other books I’ve read on the practice of writing tend to contain a fair amount of waffle, this one doesn’t. It is packed with useful suggestions, and would likely be useful to anyone looking to write in a different genre.
One of the many things that I liked about this book was that
it cautioned against the slavish following of advice dished out by any one
author, as every writer has their own stylistic bent, and what is ‘right’ for a
predominantly American readership might grate with some UK readers and vice
versa. Every author has to find their own individual voice, as well as their
readership, with the latter being one of the hardest tasks of all, not least
because of genre constraints and expectations. Darwin touches upon several of
the subgenres of historical fiction such as adventure and thriller, crime and
mystery, and comedy to name but three, but alas she does not touch upon my own:
the rather idiosyncratic combination of ‘horror’, historical fiction, and, more
often than not, comedy.
As with every book I have read on writing and publishing, she emphasises the importance of submitting your manuscript to professionals in the sphere of copy editing and proofreading, although her text in the final two chapters provides ineloquent testimony to their fallibility in the form of a considerable number of typos, as well as a completely mangled and nonsensical sentence.