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November 2022

THE SANDRINGHAM MYSTERY . . . Between the covers

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I found this novel intriguing in two ways. Firstly, the action takes place on my home turf. I live in Wisbech (well, someone has to) and Spalding, Sutterton, Sutton Bridge (just over the border in Lincolnshire), and Sandringham in West Norfolk are all very familiar. Christina James (real name Linda Bennett) writes:

“I was born in Lincolnshire, in England, and grew up in Spalding. I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the South Lincolnshire Fens, with their huge skies, limitless landscapes and isolated communities; I have always been interested in the psychology of the people who have lived there over the centuries. I have now put some of this interest and fascination into the fictional world of Detective Inspector Tim Yates.”

I believe she now lives in Leeds, but the Lincolnshire (South Holland is the administrative district) landscape is as vivid as if she were just still standing there.

Secondly, she employs two narrative viewpoints. The first is centred on DI Tim Yates – obviously one of the good guys – but the second is narrated by a rich industrialist called Kevan de Vries, and we are not sure if he is on the side of the angels or the devils.

Kevan de Vries lives in a palatial country home called Lauriston, in the village of Sutterton. Almost by accident (police are investigating a suspected burglary) a package of forged UK passports is discovered in the cellar, but de Vries claims he has no knowledge of how they got there.  Then, a more shocking discovery is made, in the shape of skeletons which, when examined, appeared to be those of black people. They have been there since the 19th century.

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For all his riches, de Vries had not been able to buy happiness. His wife Joanna has terminal cancer, and their autistic son attends a boarding school in nearby Sleaford. The couple spend much of their time on the Caribbean island of St Lucia, while the business of running the huge processing plant in South Lincolnshire is largely left to a manager called Tony Sentance who, surprisingly, de Vries loathes and abhors. So, does Sentance have some kind of hold on de Vries?

Screen Shot 2022-11-17 at 18.46.47Tim Yates’s life is made even more complicated when the remains of a young woman are found on the Queen’s estate at Sandringham, across the border in Norfolk. It should be none of Yates’s business, except that the dead woman was wearing branded work clothing from Kevan de Vries’ factory. Meanwhile, a mysterious diary dating back to Victorian times, and found in the cellar at Lauristan, reveals that the controversial colonial politician Cecil Rhodes had connections with the family who owned the house at the time.

When Yates investigates the connection between the girl whose remains were concealed on the royal estate and the de Vries factory, he comes up against a wall of silence which convinces him that the dead girl was caught up in a trafficking and prostitution racket linked to the huge numbers of Eastern Europeans who came to work in the area during the years of *freedom of movement.

*The tens of thousands of people from Poland and the Baltic states who arrived in Eastern England in the 2000s transformed towns like Boston, Spalding and Wisbech. The owners of food processing factories and farmers grew rich, and the immigrants found they could earn far more for their labours than they could back home. There was a downside to this, in that along with the hard working immigrants came unscrupulous people who made fortunes exploiting cheap labour, renting out multiple-occupancy homes and – worst of all – establishing a thriving slavery and prostitution network.

This is an enjoyably complex novel which works on one level as an excellent police procedural while, on another, takes a long hard look at how powerful people – both now and in times past – exploit the most vulnerable in society. The Sandringham Mystery is published by Bloodhound Books and is available now.

THE OUTRAGE AT OUTHILL . . . A brutal murder in rural Warwickshire (2)

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SpudSO FAR: 23rd April, 1862, rural Warwickshire, and a 21 year old ploughman, George Gardner,  employed by farmer Davis Edge at Outhill Farm, near Studley, has shot 24 year-old Sarah Kirby, employed by Edge as a domestic servant. Gardner’s peculiar state of mind before killing Sarah Kirby could almost be described as existential, in that it seemed to recognise neither logic nor the law – just his own obsession. He did, however, seem to have acknowledged the presence of chance. He had been uncertain that morning about killing Sarah Kirby, so he adopted a rural version of tossing a coin. Ploughmen used a hand-tool known as a “spud”. It was basically a flat blade, usually mounted on a wooden handle, (left} and used for clearing earth from the blades of the plough. Gardner decided to toss the tool in the air, and if it landed blade first, then Sarah Kirby would die. It did, and so did the young woman.

Garner needed to escape, and for that he needed protection from his pursuers – and money. He smashed open Davis Edge’s bureau, but found only small change. He took this, as well as the gun, the powder and the *shot flask.

*This was in the days before shotgun cartridges. There were three elements to a shotgun load. (1) the gunpowder tamped down via the barrel (2) the lead shot, likewise loaded from the muzzle, and (3) a small primer, known as a primer cap. This, when ignited by the gun’s hammer, would set off the powder which would, in turn, expel the shot.

Leaving the scene of his crime, Gardner set off to put distance between himself and the police. He managed to get to Stratford, where he sold the gun, powder and shot. Meanwhile, he was a hunted man:

“The police joined the villagers and gamekeepers, scoured the woods and surrounding country, and got upon the track the fugitive, whom they traced to Wootton, and thence to the Stratford Railway station, and ultimately to the junction of the Stratford branch with the West Midland main line at Honeybourne, where the police captured him.”

Gardner’s brutal nature was only matched by his stupidity. Waiting in Honeybourne to catch the next train to Oxford, he decided he had time for a drink, and went into a nearby inn, where he was later found by the police, almost unable to walk due to the amount of cheap gin he had drunk.

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Gardner’s subsequent trial at Warwick Assizes was something of a formality. His defence barrister made a half hearted attempt to prove that the gun had gone off by accident, but the jury knew a killer when they saw one, and the judge – Baron Pollock – duly donned the Black Cap, and sent Gardner back to the condemned cell. His execution was set for Monday 25th August. A newspaper report described the days leading up to the Gardner’s appointment with the executioner:

“Exactly a fortnight has therefore elapsed before the sentence was enforced. During his incarceration in Warwick Gaol Gardner has learnt to write ; and since receiving sentence has spent good portion of his time in both reading and writing. There is really no condemned cell in the gaol, and the one occupied by Gardner after condemnation differed in no respect from the others except that it was larger, and situated in that portion of the building nearest to the sleeping-rooms of the turnkeys, two of whom attended him day and night.

Since condemnation, he has dined on the usual prison fare, which consists of ½lb. of mutton chop, 1lb. of potatoes, 11b. of bread, and a pint of ale. He has slept well every night, and conducted himself altogether as well as could be expected. Mr. Carles, the chaplain, has afforded him what consolation of spiritual nature his state required, and latterly he appeared to be very penitent, and made a confession to the following effect:”

Confession

Screen Shot 2022-11-16 at 19.58.53Gardner had one further misfortune. His executioner was none other than George Smith (right), a former criminal and noted drunk, known – with rough humour – as The Dudley Throttler. This was to be a public execution, and a perfectly respectable form of cheap entertainment at the time. A reporter described the scene:

“At precisely eighteen minutes past ten the prisoner appeared upon the drop, attended by four warders, and Smith, the executioner. The clergyman did not, as is customary now, make his appearance upon the scaffold, and this, coupled with the absence of any tolling of the bell, robbed the ceremony of much of its impressiveness. The prisoner was dressed in the same clothes wore the trial—a short white smock and fustian trousers. The executioner also wore long white smock frock. After he had removed the prisoner’s neckerchief, and adjusted the rope upon his neck, Smith shook hands with the wretched man, and left the scaffold to draw the bolt.

A murmur of horror ran through the crowd, it being evident that the hangman had forgotten to place the cap over the culprit’s face in the usual manner. There the poor wretch stood, pinioned, the rope around his neck, facing the crowd. Everyone who saw him expected momentarily see him plunge downwards, and the horror of witnessing the wretched man’s death-agonies depicted in his face, unmasked, caused those who were even accustomed such scenes to turn away. The omission was noticed by one of the warders upon the scaffold, who called the executioner back, and he then produced the cap from his pocket. Altogether the wretched culprit must have stood face to face with the crowd for the space of ten minutes – to him it must have been a century of agony.

The bolt was drawn immediately afterwards, and the prisoner being a heavy man, the body fell with immense force, sufficient, we should imagine, if the rope had been properly adjusted, to have caused dislocation of the neck and a very speedy death. As it was. however, life was not pronounced extinct for at least twelve minutes. The body was afterwards buried within the precincts of the gaol. Owing to the position of the scaffold persons standing in the road can see very little of what takes place, and after the drop nothing but the cap of the culprit was visible. The number of spectators was between twelve and fourteen hundred, of whom least one third were women and children.”

FOR MORE WARWICKSHIRE MURDERS, CLICK THE IMAGE BELOW

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THE OUTRAGE AT OUTHILL . . . A brutal murder in rural Warwickshire (1)

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Outhill Farm is a lonely enough place even today, despite being beside the busy A1489 road from Henley-in-Arden to Redditch, but in the spring of 1862, it would have seemed even more remote. The tenant farmer was a Mr Davis Edge. Among his employees were two young people, both in their early 20s. Ploughman George Gardner – a native of Broadway in Worcestershire – was a burly and, apparently, a rather uncouth fellow, while Sarah Kirby, a domestic servant, was described as a very comely young woman, and much respected in the neighbourhood for her modesty and gracious manner. Across the Atlantic, our cousins were in the second year of a brutal and divisive civil war, but in England, at least in the face of it, all was peace and calm. It is 23rd April, a day doubly celebrated these days as being our national saint’s day and also the birthday of our greatest dramatist, born just a dozen or so miles from the scene of this tragedy.

It is clear that Gardner ‘had designs’ on Sarah Kirby, but the attraction was never mutual. A later newspaper report used the circumlocutory language of the day to describe something which we would be more frank about these days.

Brutal passion

The press saw George Gardner, rightly of wrongly, as the Beast to Sarah Kirby’s Beauty:

“Gardner was a remarkably stout-built, firmly knit man, about five feet four inches in height, with a heavy and unintellectual head, set upon a short, thick neck, which only rose a few inches above his muscular and expansive chest. He was of dark complexion, with dark hair and whiskers, and a countenance anything but prepossessing. In this case the man’s appearance was true index to his character. Devoid of education, he allowed his brutish passions to govern him instead of endeavouring to keep them in check.”


Gardner had, at least in his own mind, another grudge against Sarah Kirby. The farm men used to come back to the house at lunchtime, and be served a meal, accompanied by beer. Gardner was convinced that Sarah, who acted as waitress, ‘served him short’ and would not fill up his tankard when he asked. The question of sanity, in these old murder cases – as in those of more recent times – is always problematic. There is an argument that men like Gardner would have to be insane to think they could get away with the crimes they were about to commit. Insanity is not the same as stupidity, however, and perhaps Garner’s limited knowledge of the world was the cause of  his apparent optimism that he could commit murder and get away with it. What happened in that Outhill farmhouse on 23rd April 1862 was graphically described in a newspaper report:

The shooting

IN PART TWO

An escape
A manhunt
An arrest
A rendezvous with “The Dudley Throttler”

 

ON MY SHELF . . . November 2022

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An autumn garland of goodness sits on my shelf today. Reading definitely gets easier as the days become shorter – one of the few compensations of winter.

THE FAMILY TREE MYSTERY by Peter Bartram

I love this series set in and around Brighton in the 1960s. The former journalist combines nostalgia, likeable characters, daft jokes, clever references to the politics and social habits of the time, and addictive story lines. In this latest episode the (possibly autobiographical) crime reporter for the Brighton Evening Chronicle – Colin Crampton – and his gorgeous Aussie girlfriend Shirley Goldsmith become entangled in a murder mystery involving a distant relative of Shirley’s, who is found murdered. The Family Tree Mystery is published by The Bartram Partnership, and the paperback is available now.

THE IMPOSTER by Leona Deakin

A welcome return here for Dr Augusta Bloom, a psychologist with a particular skill in solving criminal cases. In this, the fourth in the series, she is on the trail of an elusive serial killer whose victims include a stock-market trader is pushed from a high-rise balcony and falls to his death on the street below, and a member of the Saudi Royal Family, whose decomposing body is discovered in a car. This is published by Penguin and will be out in paperback on 24th November. Previous books in the series can be explored here.

THE SANDRINGHAM MYSTERY by Christina James

Mostly set in the Lincolnshire area known as South Holland, this novel also echoes a real life murder from 2012, when the remains of Latvian teenager Alisa Dmitrijeva was found on the late Queen’s estate near Sandringham. Lincolnshire copper, DI Tim Yates, becomes involved with the murder when the clothes the dead girl was wearing are identified as work-wear from a food processing factory, whose owner – Kevan de Vries – has come to the attention of the police when a pile of forged passports – and some long dead corpses – are found in the cellar of his mansion. This novel came out earlier this year, and is published by Bloodhound Books.

RUN TO GROUND by Stuart Johnstone

Tartan Noir now, with the third book by Stuart Johnstone featuring Edinburgh copper Don Colyear. Colyear has made the transition from his role as a Community Police Sergeant to a new position in Edinburgh’s CID, but the adjustment has not been easy. The workload and paperwork are one thing but being micro-managed by DCI Templeton as well is more than testing. When Colyear’s investigation into a mysterious death spirals into a complicated case centred on a massive consignment of Class A drugs, a double murder and a clash between low-level and professional criminals, his instincts are put to the test. This is from Allison & Busby, and you can get hold of a copy from 17th November.

MURDER UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN by Rachel Rhys

Scottish crime novels are routinely described as ‘gritty’, but the same adjective could never be used to describe this latest novel from Rachel Rhys. We are in post WW2 Italy, in the lush landscape of Tuscany, where the lavish villas are peopled by the rich and glamorous, including an ailing gentleman art-dealer, his dazzling niece, her handsome Fascist husband, their neglected young daughter, the housekeeper who knows everything – and Connie, the English widow working for them. But all is far from well for Connie. At night, she hears hears sinister noises and a terrible wailing inside the walls, and she fears she is losing her grip on reality. If this has whetted your appetite, then I’m afraid you will have to wait until March 2023 to find out more, but I shall be posting a full review of this Penguin publication a little nearer the time.

THE SIX WHO CAME TO DINNER by Anne Youngson

Not hardcore crime fiction, I suspect, but this collection of six linked stories includes: The village cleaning lady who holds everyone’s house-keys opens a boot to find some unexpectedly dead contents; a vengeful dinner party host serves more than just a roast to her six guests; and driven to distraction by his new young wife, a man resorts to two grisly acts, in a gripping re-imagining of a famous Irish ballad. Ripping away the polite façade of small communities, these stories of love, lies and revenge reveal the roiling emotions and frustration that can lead seemingly good people to do bad things. Rich in compassion, pathos and humour, Anne Youngson offers us her dark take on human foibles, pettiness and rivalry in this collection. My copy is a rather elegant and beautifully produced hardback. It is published by Doubleday, and is available now.

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DEATH IN DONINGTON . . . A Lincolnshire murder, 1897 (2)

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SO FAR: It is 25th May, 1897. Donington Farmer Joseph Bowser has been in bed most of the day and has been drinking heavily. Late in the afternoon he staggers downstairs, in a foul mood, and attacks his wife Susan, kicking her brutally. She staggers to her feet and seeks refuge in the doorway of a building used to rear calves. The Bowsers’ servant, Elizabeth Berridge, sketched later (below) by a court reporter, witnessed what happened next.

Elizabeth Berridge

The shooting

Lister, and a young woman called Eliza Drury were distant relatives, and had been staying with the Bowsers. It remained a matter of some controversy that Lister had apparently made no effort to restrain the murderous Bowser, while being fully aware of what he was about to do. The Bowsers’ farmhouse was isolated, there were no telephones, and information only traveled as fast as someone could run, or a horse could gallop. Let The Lincolnshire Echo take up the story:

Dr. E. W. Jollye next gave evidence. He was called between 5.30 and 6 on the evening in question, and was asked to go Bowser’s directly. He, asked what was the matter, and was told Bowser had shot his wife, and that it was thought she was dead, but he was wanted to go and see. On arriving he saw the girl who fetched her master, who came out, to meet him. On witness saying “What is the matter?” Bowser replied, “You’ll see, she is there.” He examined deceased and while doing so Bowser stood close by, and kept saying over and over again “She has tantalised me.” Bowser further said “I have done it, and I am ready to go when they fetch me.”

“The charge had entered the skull just over the right eye and in a mass, that was, the shots had not spread. The charge went downward and to the left, coming out at the nape of the neck on the left side. The socket the eve was completely smashed, the brains scattered on the door, and there was a deal of blood under the head. The bones on the top of the head were all broken, though he would not say the skull was completely shattered. The cause of death was the gun-shot wound. The shots had made a clean way. By Mr. Crawford: He found one recent bruise just on the right buttock, and other smaller ones close to, apparently connected. There was a smaller bruise on the left buttock, but nearer the centre line of the body. There were other discolourations of the skin, but these had accrued after death. He would give no opinion as to the cause the bruises; they might nave been caused by a fall on a hard substance.”

“Bracebridge Seward, labourer, said that on the afternoon of the day question, as he was passing along the road, he saw Bowser kick his wife very badly twice. Bowser then went to the tumbril, and leaned over it for some two or three minutes, and then groaned out. saving the woman. “You –,” and went to the house. Witness heard no report of gun, having gone then. The woman had a difficulty in getting up, and went to the fowl-house in a “staggery” manner, which led him to think she was rather intoxicated.”

Joseph Bowser was quickly convicted of murder by the local magistrates and packed off to Lincoln to await trial at the next Assizes. Meanwhile Susan Bowser was interred in Donington churchyard.

Funeral

On Wednesday 7th July Joseph Bowser was found guilty at Lincoln Assizes by the judge, Baron Pollock, and sentenced to death. An artist made sketches of some of those present.

Illustrations

Joseph Bowser was executed at Lincoln Prison on Tuesday 27th July 1897.

Execution

Criminal record

TO READ ABOUT OTHER NOTORIOUS LINCOLNSHIRE MURDER
CASES CLICK THE IMAGE BELOW

Donington Church

DEATH IN DONINGTON . . . A Lincolnshire murder, 1897 (1)

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Susan Coates was born in November 1853 in the village of New Bolingbroke. At the age of 18, she gave birth to a son – to be called Henry Coates-Harrison. The double-barreled surname was not a sign of nobility, but rather that the boy’s father was a local farmer called Edward Harrison. Three years later, the couple “did the decent thing” and married on 19th October 1874, in the church of St Andrew, Miningsby. I imagine that it must have been a Victorian church, as it was declared redundant and demolished in 1975. A medieval building would not have suffered that fate.

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The 1881 census has the three of them plus Edward’s elderly father – living in what the document describes as ‘Enderby Allot”. Short for allotment, possibly? No matter. Edward Harrison did not live to complete the next census, as he died in 1884. The farm did not pass on to Susan, which suggests that they were tenants. It seems that in widowhood she took up  a position as housekeeper to another local farmer, Joseph Bowser. She married him in December 1886. Bowser’s history has been difficult to pin down, for one or two reasons. The first is that when the census records were digitised, his name was misread as “Beezer”, which accounts for his near invisibility. Secondly, there is another Joseph Bowser, also a farmer, and also living in the area, but he seems to be a much younger man than “our” Joseph, who was born in 1854, in Sibsey. The 1891 census has him living in Northorpe, a hamlet just north of Donington, and his wife is named as Susanah. He was something of a local dignitary, and was on the *Board of Guardians in Spalding.
*
The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act put an end to out relief, grouping parishes together into legislative bodies called Poor Law Unions. Each was administered by a board of guardians who would oversee the running of a workhouse.

Bowser was however, a volatile sort of man, as a  newspaper later describes.

“Bowser was a familiar figure market days, and every regular attendant knew him. Many are the stories that are being retailed in illustration of his excitable nature and violent temper. The general opinion would appear be that he was the worse for drink at the time, and was a common thing for him to indulge freely before he left Boston on market days, when he would drive away at break-neck speed down West-street and to Sleaford-road. The use of a gun as argument appears have been a favourite one with Bowser, as it is stated he on one occasion shot a valuable horse that was rather lively in the field, and which he could not capture, and another time a greyhound did not readily obey his commands, and its career was put an end to in equally summary and untimely manner.”

Despite much searching for clues, I have been unable to identify for certain which of Northorpe’s farms was run by Bowser. I do know that he was a tenant of the principal local landowner, Captain Richard Gleed, of Park House. My best guess is that it was one of the farms near Hammond Beck Bridge.

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By 1897, the relationship between Joseph Bowser and his wife has seriously deteriorated. Susan’s son, now 26 had left and was living in Lincoln, and Bowser’s behaviour was frequently affected by drink. The Lincolnshire Echo of Thursday 27th May reported:

“His wife had left him for short time on several occasions owing to his treatment, and had often sought refuge the house of Mrs. Roe*, at the lane end, but Bowser would go there and smash the windows, Mrs. Rowe after a time dare not shelter her.”

*The Roe family are listed next to the Bowsers on the 1891 census return, in the vicinity of Hammond Beck Bridge.

Whatever the demons were that drove him to seek comfort in the bottle, they were particularly vindictive on Tuesday 25th May, 1897. He had risen at the usual time, but thought better of it, and returned to his bed with a bottle of whisky. Later on in the afternoon, in the grip of drink, he staggered from his bed and went downstairs. A newspaper reported  what happened next:

“Towards evening, the only people in the house at the time were Bowser and his wife and a servant girl named Berridge. Two visitors were staying at the place – a Mr. Lister, of Mavis Enderby, near Spilsby, aud Miss Barber of Wyberton – but they had gone out for a walk when the quarrel commenced. From a statement by the servant girl, it appears that Mrs. Bowser had been engaged with her domestic duties more or less during the day. In the afternoon, according to custom, she was preparing some chicken food, and about this time Bowser left the house, and coming up to his wife, said,
“What are you mixing that for?  and she said
“For the chickens.”
Bowser then began call his wife names and otherwise insult her, but she took no notice, and walked round to the front the house. Bowser, however, followed her into the home held, where he kicked her, and she fell to the ground. He again kicked her while in this position. It was clear that Mrs. Bowser was hurt, for she failed to rise. In the meantime her husband had returned to the house. Mrs. Bowser length got up, and walked with difficulty to the calf-house where she supported herself near the door.”

IN PART TWO

GUNSHOTS
A FUNERAL
A TRIAL
A DATE WITH MR BILLINGTON

THE POISON MACHINE . . . Between the covers

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There is nothing new in historical fiction writers having their own invented characters  mix with real life figures. Among the writers who have done this with great success in the crime genre are Philip Kerr, John Lawton, Chris Nickson, and MJ Trow (click the links for further information). I was delighted to be able to review The Bloodless Boy by Robert J Lloyd just about a year ago. He introduced us the (fictional) scientist Harry Hunt and brought back personal memories of ‘O’ Level Physics by featuring Robert Hooke, of Hooke’s Law* fame.

*Hooke’s Law states that the force (F) needed to extend or compress a spring by some distance (x) scales linearly with respect to that distance—that is, Fs = kx, where k is a constant factor characteristic of the spring (i.e., its stiffness), and x is small compared to the total possible deformation of the spring.

I didn’t understand it then, and I still don’t, but no matter. In The Bloodless Boy King Charles II played quite a significant part, but his Roman Catholic wife, Queen Catherine is more to the fore in The Poison Machine, principally because after an eventful sojourn in France, Harry Hunt discovers a plot to murder her. The story begins in London in 1679, where Harry is humiliated when an experiment he is conducting in front of some very distinguished men goes badly wrong. Feeling unsupported by Robert Hooke, he distances himself from the London scientific world by taking on a criminal investigation,

Screen Shot 2022-10-16 at 19.18.26In far-off Norfolk, men repairing flood defences near Denver Sluice have discovered what appears to be the remains of a child inside the rotted skeleton of a boat. Hunt, accompanied by Colonel Michael Field, a grizzled veteran of Cromwell’s army, and Hooke’s niece, Grace. When the trio arrive in Norfolk, Hunt soon determines that the remains are not those of a child, but the mortal remains of Jeffrey Hudson, who was known as the Queen’s Dwarf – the Queen in question being the late Henrietta Maria (left), wife of Charles I. The situation becomes more bizarre when Hunt learns that Hudson is not dead, but living in the town of Oakham, 60 miles west across the Fens. Hunt and his companions’ journey only delivers up more mystery when they find that ‘Jeffrey Hudson’ has left the town. Hunt knows that the jolly boat* which contained the skeleton belonged to a French trader, Incasble, which worked out of King’s Lynn.

*Jolly boats were usually the smallest type of boat carried on ships, and were generally between 16 feet (4.9 m) and 18 feet (5.5 m) long. They were clinker-built and propelled by four or six oars. When not in use the jolly boat normally hung from davits at the stern of a ship, and could be hoisted into and out of the water. Jolly boats were used for transporting people and goods to and from shore.

Sancy diamond ndexHunt’s odyssey continues. In King’s Lynn, Hunt and his companions are summoned to the presence of the Duchesse de Mazarin. Hortense Mancini is one of the most beautiful women in Europe. She is highly connected, but also notorious as one of Charles II’s (several) mistresses. She reveals that the mysterious dwarf – or his impersonator – may be in possession of a a legendary gemstone – the Sancy – a diamond of legendary worth, and the cause of centuries of intrigue and villainy. The Duchesse bids Harry to travel to Paris, but once there, his fortunes take a turn for the worse.

The layers of deception and double dealing in Lloyd’s plot are sometimes breathtakingly complex, but the page-and-a-half of dramatis personnae at the front of the book is a great help. When Harry Hunt, apparently betrayed by Colonel Fields, finds himself incarcerated sine die in la Bastille, one fears the worst for our intelligent (but not particularly swashbuckling) hero.

Robert J Lloyd once again works his magic in the twin roles of formidable historian and fine storyteller. We have fantastical escapes, improbable machines (a kind of 17thC steampunk) and perilous journeys to entertain us, and they do this most royally. The Poison Machine is published by Melville House and is available now.

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