It is the first day of 1678, and snow is settling over a London that is mostly rebuilt after the great conflagration, but still has patches of nettle covered gaps where buildings used to be. Scientist Harry Hunt, assistant to the great polymath Robert Hooke, is summoned to his master’s side to attend what appears to be a a murder scene. On the muddy banks of the open sewer known as the Fleet River, an angler has found the dead body of a boy, perhaps two or three years of age. When examined by Hooke, a the behest of senior magistrate Sir Edmund Bury Godfrey, it is discovered that the boy has been expertly drained of blood. Found upon the body is a letter containing a single sheet of paper, a cypher consisting of numbers and letters arranged in a square.
Thus begins a thoroughly intriguing murder mystery, steeped in the religious politics of the time. For over one hundred and fifty years, religion had defined politics. Henry VIII and his daughters had burned their ‘heretics’, and although the strife between Charles I and Parliament was mainly to do with authority and representation, many of Oliver Cromwell’s adherents were strident in their opposition to the ways of worship practiced by the Church if England. Now, Charles II is King. He is reputed to have sired many ‘royal bastards’ but none that could succeed to the throne, and the next in line, his brother James, has converted to Catholicism. In most of modern Britain the schism between Catholics and Protestants is just a memory, but we only have to look across the Irish Sea for evidence of the bitter passions that can still divide society.
Harry Hunt is charged with breaking the code, and learns that it is a cypher last used over twenty years early when the current King was smuggled out of the country after his defeat at the battle of Worcester. Hunt and Hooke have another mystery death on their hands, however. With this one, Robert J Lloyd departs from recorded history, in its pages tell us that Henry Oldenburg, the German-born philosopher, scientist, theologian – and Secretary of The Royal Society – died of an undisclosed illness in September 1677, but the author has him shooting himself through the head with an ancient pistol. Lloyd jiggles the facts again – and why not? – with the killing of Sir Edmund Bury Godfrey, whose corpse is found strapped to the fearsome Morice water wheel under London Bridge (below). Sir Edmund was actually found dead in a ditch near Primrose Hill, impaled with his own sword.
We find ourselves immersed in a plot of dazzling complexity which weaves together political and military history, a plot to kill the king, and a highly secret medical experiment undertaken with the best of intentions, but turning into something every bit as horrific as those carried out by Joseph Mengele centuries later. In the middle of the turmoil stands Harry Hunt – an admirable and courageous hero who is underestimated at every step and turn by the men involved in the conspiracy.
How on earth this superb novel spent many years floating around in the limbo of ‘independent publishing’ is beyond reason. While not quite in the ‘Decca rejects The Beatles‘ class of short sightedness, it is still baffling. The Bloodless Boy has everything – passion, enough gore to satisfy Vlad Drăculea, a sweeping sense of England’s history, a comprehensive understanding of 17th century science and a depiction of an English winter which will have you turning up the thermostat by a couple of notches. The characters – both real and fictional – are so vivid that they could be there in the room with you as you read the book.
Looking back at my reviews over the last eighteen months, I see there is no shortage of novels set in 17th century London, but this is a tour de force. Lloyd (above right) doesn’t just rely on the period detail to bring the history to life, he lights the pages up with fascinating real-life figures who make the narrative sparkle with authenticity.