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,
In 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.
Hunt’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.