The ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

1666. London is burning. In the midst of the chaos a body is found at St. Paul’s. James Marwood, the son of a convicted traitor during Cromwell’s Glorious Revolution, is charged with finding the murderer. And time is running out. A few days later a new victim is found, murdered in the same way. During his investigation the name of Catherine Lovett always pops up. She has left her aunt’s house after the first murder and is looking for her father, a regicide on the run.

I do love a good historical mystery and this has been on my list for some time. I’m really intrigued by The Great Fire of London and the premise of a murder investigation during this disaster caught my attention.

The story opens with James Marwood, an anonymus clerk living outside London to hide his ill and traitorous father from the world, standing in the crowd before St. Paul’s cathedral to watch it burn. He saves a young boy running into the fire. But the boy turns out to be a girl! Before he can talk to her, she bites him and runs off with his jacket. A few hours later James is told a body has been found inside the church, with his thumbs bound behind his back.

A few chapters later we meet Catherine Lovett, a young heiress who is forced to marry an older man she doesn’t like by her aunt and uncle. She’s looking for her father and leaves the house, just before Marwoord arrives to inform the family the body in St Paul’s was one of their servants.

The story switches between James and Catherine both looking for the murderer and each other. Step by step, you discover what happened. I had hoped to read a good murder mystery, but the hunt for the killer isn’t the real focus of the novel. It’s all about the historical setting and the background stories of James and Catherine in the light of the still recent rebellion and Civil War. Even the king himself meddles in the case. And there is the fire. During the whole book we walk through a burning London. You can smell the ashes through the pages.

It took some time before I could empathize with James and especially Catherine. The revelations are slow and the whole book felt like an introduction to the coming books. The ending didn’t really give an explanation for all the murders but I liked it nonetheless. And as I read in other reviews that this series gets better and better, I’m inclined to give the second book ‘the fire court‘ a chance.

The ashes of London gives a nice and dark insight into the greatest natural disaster on British soil in the aftermath of the Restoration. But for real suspense, you’ll need to read some else.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Have you read this series? Or any other books about the Great Fire or Restoration?

The Foundling by Stacey Halls

Bess Bright sells shrimps with her father in the city of London. When she gets pregnant by accident, she has to leave her daughter Clara behind at the Foundling hospital where she will be cared for and learn a trade. Determined to get her daughter back, Bess saves every penny. But when she returns six years later, they tell her that her daughter has already been claimed years ago by herself. The woman who took her even knew about the token she left with Clara, a half heart of whalebone.

A few streets further a woman plagued by a childhood trauma forbids her young daughter Charlotte to leave the house. The only exception is their weekly trip to the chapel where they have a chat with Doctor Mead, a friend of Alexandra’s late husband.

I read Stacey Halls other novel, The Familiars, and I loved it. So it didn’t take me long to read The Foundling also. It’s a total different setting. This story takes us to Georgian London where me meet young Bess who is living with her father and brother in poor circumstances. She has just made the most terrible choice a mother can face: she is going to leave her infant daughter in the care of the Foundling hospital.

At the same time we are introduced to Alexandra, a widowed mother who has all the financial means she needs to take care of her household, her daughter and herself. But there’s one problem: she doesn’t go out, nor does her daughter. They only leave their house by carriage on Sundays to attend mass at the chapel only a few streets further. A long-time friend convinces Alexandra to take in a nursemaid to look after the welfare of her daughter.

As you can guess this two women are connected in some way and slowly we discover their background stories. I liked the Bess parts, but I had a better connection with Alexandra. She has placed herself in some kind of self quarantine and is troubled by mysterious fears. I don’t know if being in lockdown myself made me sympathize more with Alexandra, but I looked forward to her parts.

There are some other colorful characters in this story, particularly Ambrosia and Lyle. Halls brings the different layers of Georgian society to life. From the smelly and dirty fish market to the golden cage of Alexandra’s home. We also get an inside look in the Foundling hospital that really was a child’s home for deserted young children in the 18th century. This book reminded me that I should visit the Foundling museum next time I’m in London.

The revelation at the end is a bit rushed. I would have liked a more in-depth confrontation between Bess and Alexandra. But I did get an answer to all my questions. The Familiars is my favorite Halls novel so far, but this one is also a good choice if you want to discover her solid writing style.

I’m eagerly awaiting Stacey Halls next book as I don’t doubt it will have an interesting premise as well.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read any of Stacey Halls novels? What’s your favorite story about Georgian London?