REVIEW: The Royal Secret by Andrew Taylor

Royal secThe palace intrigues of the Royal Courts of Europe provide the most fertile ground for historical novelists. In the daily shifts in power and influence of noblemen, priests, financiers and courtiers there lies enormous opportunities, for fortunes to be made and position to be one, as well as tremendous danger. One failure, one indiscretion, one misjudgment can be fatal. 

In the hands of a skillful novelist, one with an eye for period detail, a desire to bring history to life and a flair for story-telling, it's a blank canvas with endless potential. Those of us enjoy our history delivered with a slice of mystery are living in gilded times with a rich choice of novels and series. 

One of those is Andrew Taylor's James Marwood / Cat Lovett series, set in the Restoration on the fringes of the court of King Charles II. A series started in The Ashes of London in the wake of the Great Fire of 1666, has now reached its fifth instalment in 1670. James Marwood has continued his steady ascent in the branch of government stemming from the powerful Secretary of State, Lord Arlington. With the trust of Arlington and the King, Marwood's employ frequently extends beyond his dreary administrative duties to a role that regularly covers detective and spy. Cat Lovett is forging her own reputation as an architect, gradually overcoming the obstacles applied to a woman in 17th Century society. 

Marwood is drawn into a new mystery when another of Arlington's men is murdered, possibly as a result of sensitive documents illicitly in his possession, and he is asked to investigate. At the same time, her burgeoning professional reputation draws the attention of the King, who asks her to design a poultry house for his beloved sister who is married to the brother of the Sun King, Louis XIV.

An intricate plot operates at first on a slow burn - Marwood, like the reader, is not given full insight into what he's looking into, and it's not clear how a number of different incidents fit together. What is clear is that the situation is both urgent and delicate, and it places Marwood and those close to him in new danger. 

This is a series that is always replete with historical detail that reveals much about the politics and social conditions of the age. Like other great series, such as CJ Sansom's Shardlake books, it is also enriched by the presence of important historical characters whose machinations are often right at the centre of the mystery, even if the narrative itself moves in the wings of that history. What you get then is a great mystery novel that also delivers a digestible slice of history - as well as the tension of the "will they / won´t they" relationship between Marwood and Lovett.

It's a series that I believe has grown with age and I think this is perhaps the best so far: a dramatic thriller deeply immersed in the political and diplomatic skullduggery of its time. Let's hope there's a lot more to come. 

January 16, 2024

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