This is the latest in Susanna Gregory's Thomas Chaloner series, set in Restoration London. Thomas Chaloner is a spy in the employ of Joseph Williamson, chief of King Charles II's intelligence network.
England is about to go to war against the Dutch. The narrative opens as HMS London, one of the largest ships in the Navy, mysteriously sinks in the Medway estuary, with 300 sailors and various dignitaries on board. There are only 24 survivors.
London is awash with rumours and conspiracy theories. Chaloner is ordered to investigate the murder of Paul Ferine, a courtier who is alleged to have been able to foretell the future. The murder happened in a brothel owned by Temperance, an old friend of Chaloner's. The patrons of this establishment are a curious mixture – some of the leading lights in the aristocracy, including such notables as the Duke of Buckingham and Prince Rupert, and an equal number of tradesmen, general lowlifes and hardened criminals.
The plot is extremely complicated. Murders become ever more frequent, together with an increasing number of characters. I must confess I had some difficulty in remembering who some of them were as the plot progressed. As well as trying to solve all the murders, Chaloner is told to investigate a group of dissidents known as the Fifth Monarchists, who may be planning an insurrection at Easter.
Chaloner infiltrates the group by masquerading as an explosives expert (which is partially true). As he gets to know more of the Fifth Monarchists, he realises there are tentacles connecting them to the murders - in fact, nearly everyone he knows is implicated, including the Duke of Buckingham and, most of all, Prince Rupert, who comes out as a very nasty piece of work. The Fifth Monarchists, he soon discovers, intend to blow up the Tower of London, kill the King and replace him with the resurrected Jesus.
Extraordinary events follow one another in rapid succession. Chaloner is variously almost killed by shooting, stabbing, drowning and strangling, but miraculously escapes.
I have to say I found some of these adventures very unconvincing, but when I eventually got to the end (it is a longish book), and read the author's Historical Note, I was astonished to discover that most of the huge cast of characters were real people, and many of the events actually happened.
I certainly commend Susannah Gregory for her brilliant research. I couldn't put the book down!