The King’s Beast is the sixth novel in Eliot Pattison’s series featuring the Scottish exile Duncan McCallum, and his adventures in America before the Revolution. The story begins in 1769, just a few years before the start of the actual conflict which saw Americans shaking off what they saw as the dead hand of British colonialism. However, as Pattison points out in his preface, and as readers of the earlier novels will know, the events of 18th April 1775, and subsequent battles, were the culmination of years of political intrigue and discontent.
So who is Duncan McCallum? Like many of his countrymen, he fled his homeland to escape the brutal recriminations following the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1746. His father and brothers were not so fortunate. McCallum has nightmares about his kin swinging from an English gibbet, food for crows and ravens. McCallum is a trained physician, but open-minded enough to know that the natural remedies used by the Native Americans he meets can be extremely potent.
Earlier novels in the series have seen McCallum all over the parts of America which had been colonised – Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia – but now he is in Kentucky, overseeing the excavation of fossils, on the instructions of none other than Benjamin Franklin. Franklin – writer, polymath, journalist, scientist and political activist – has been in London since 1757, lobbying on behalf of Pennsylvania, and is anxious to have the fossils – relics of prehistoric mastodons.
The fossils, known at the time as American Incognitum, are not just historical artifacts but, with tensions rising between various political factions on both sides of the Atlantic, they become chips in an increasingly deadly game. By the time McCallum sets sail for London on the Galileo, blood has been shed, and brave men lie buried.
As McCallum and his friends try to avoid the malign intentions of British soldiers and get the fossils to Franklin, they are sidetracked by efforts to secure the release of McCallum’s mentor, a native American called Conawago, who has been incarcerated in the notorious Bethlehem Hospital – Bedlam. The hospital’s evil reputation is well-earned:
“…noxious smells wafted through the hall. The stench of excrement and urine mingled with those of soap, vinegar and strong black tea. Men in matching brown waistcoats and britches, apparently staff, were emerging from chambers at the back of the main gallery, shepherding patients out of a dining chamber and opening windows, which created new currents of air that seemed to just circulate the same foul odours.”
McCallum finally contacts Franklin, and realises that the American is viewed with some ambiguity by the British establishment. On the one hand his political activism makes him a figure of suspicion, while his learning and scientific mind link him to the most powerful man in the land – King George III. The King respects learning and research, but is surrounded by advisors who do not share his enthusiasm.
I am always slightly wary of historical fiction where some of the characters have remarkably modern attitudes to diversity and cultural tolerance, but McCallum is not a member of the ‘woke’ fraternity transported back two and a half centuries – he is decent, just, honorable, and a convincing man of his time. Pattison’s scholarship is immense, and his grasp of historical detail is formidable. This is to be expected from an international lawyer, perhaps, but this is a historian who can also tell a good tale. Readers will look long and hard before they find another writer who can teach us about a particular period, with all its social and political complexities, while at the same time entertaining and enthralling us. The King’s Beast is published by Counterpoint and is out today, 7th April.