Shona MacLean opens the door of her time machine and takes us to the city of London in the third year of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate, 1655. It is almost exactly six years since the severed head of King Charles was shown to the crowd around the scaffold in Whitehall, but Cromwell’s England is still a troubled place. There are still pockets of secret Royalist sympathy up and down the land, and the dead king’s son is in exile, waiting his moment to return.
By far the deepest thorn in Cromwell’s side, however, are firebrand extremist preachers (some things never change) who believe that The Lord Protector has compromised the purity of the cause. One such group is The Fifth Monarchists, a group of zealots who hold true to a strange prophecy in the Book of Daniel, which said that the four kingdoms of Babylon, Persia, Macedonia and Rome would pass away before the fifth kingdom would be visited on the earth – that of Christ himself.
We are quickly introduced to a stern and forbidding Yorkshire soldier called Damian Seeker. He is a veteran of the recent wars, and is now a Captain of the State Guard. It seems that he is directly answerable to Secretary Thurloe, Cromwell’s spymaster – and to Old Noll himself. When the body of a man, dressed in the distinctive black robes of the Dominican order, is found walled up in a ruined priory, those involved are amazed that the corpse is relatively intact after 300 years of entombment. Seeker lets the rumour fly around the streets of the city, but he soon realises that not only has the man been dead only for a matter of weeks, but that he knows his identity.
The dead man is none other than Carter Blythe, one of Thurloe’s most secretive and effective agents. He had embedded himself at the heart of a group of Fifth Monarchists in order to keep track of their plans for insurrection, but he has clearly been rumbled. While keeping the dead man’s true identity a close secret, Seeker – whose surname has earned him the sinister but appropriate appellation of The Seeker – tries to discover the fate of a number of children who have mysteriously disappeared in recent weeks.
The author introduced us to Seeker in her 2015 novel, The Seeker. He is big, tough, implacable – and more or less indestructible. This enables him to stride about the place with great physical authority, and where this is ineffective, he seems to have a direct line to the most powerful man in the country – The Lord Protector himself. The scene–setting is excellent, and I breathed a sigh of relief when it became obvious that MacLean has allowed her characters to talk to each other relatively normally, without any attempt to replicate the conversational mannerisms of the time – whatever they may have been.
MacLean (right) has great fun with prominent real-life characters who would certainly have been involved in affairs of state at the time. We have a nicely imagined Andrew Marvell, the poet best known for his erotic supplication To His Coy Mistress, and a walk on part for Samuel Pepys. The great diarist is merely a clerk at The Exchequer, but his later reputation as a serial seducer of young women is hinted at. We see the spymaster John Thurloe apparently at death’s door with some unspecified illness, but in real life he was to survive the restoration of the monarchy, and died peacefully in his bed in 1668.
This is, I suppose, a 17th century police procedural, and eventually Seeker gathers his evidence, exposes a Royalist plot, and enhances his reputation as the Jack Reacher of his day. The Black Friar is recommended to anyone who might like a convincing glimpse of old London, with a decent cast of villains and a sturdy plot. The Black Friar is out today, 6th October, and is published by Quercus.
The image below shows contemporary portraits (left to right) of
Andrew Marvell, Samuel Pepys and John Thurloe.