Book Review: The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

London, 1727. Tom Hawkins, a gentleman known for his love of women, wine and gambling, finds that he cannot pay his debts. As a consequence he is taken to the infamous Marshalsea debtors prison.

Life inside is dangerous but tolerable if only he can manage to afford to live on the Master’s side, where all things considered, life is not so different from that beyond the walls. Luckily for Tom, the notorious Samuel Fleet, equally feared and despised within the prison, finds him intriguing, and he is soon sharing a room with him, courtesy of Fleet’s purse.

Tom quickly realises that things are not as settled within the Marshalsea as those running it would have it appear. Rumours of murder, ghosts and the devil spread. When he comes to learn that it was Fleet’s previous room mate who was murdered and that the majority of the prisoners believe that Fleet himself was responsible, he starts to wonder just how long he himself will survive.

Things look set to go from bad to worse for Tom when his fate becomes intertwined with the unmasking of a murderer.

Is there any chance of escape for Tom Hawkins, or will fate and those who are working towards their own agendas, conspire to ensure that he never makes it out of the Marshalsea alive?

The Marshalsea is the perfect setting for a murder mystery and provides a colourful cast of characters (many of whom use authentically colourful language). The story captured my attention from the beginning, pulling me deeper and deeper into it so that I couldn’t put the book down until I read it to its conclusion. The plot was full of twists and turns and was never for a moment too slow, quiet or sedate.

Within the walls of the prison, we are given a glimpse into the life of a eighteenth century debtor, which I found thoroughly interesting. The idea that there could be a coffeehouse and tap room / pub inside the prison made for such fascinating reading, but as always with the best books, it is the characters that we are introduced to in the story that make it believable and entertaining – this book is no different.

I would certainly be interested to read more by this author; she has a gift for bringing historical drama to life with such ease and strength that it is impossible not to get caught up in the tale she has written. Great stuff. One of my favourite books of the year so far…

Book Review: The Lady Chapel by Candace Robb

The Lady Chapel is the second Owen Archer mystery by Candace Robb.

It is 1365 and on the night of Corpus Christi a man is murdered within the boundaries of York Minster, his severed hand, missing. John Thoresby, the Archbishop of York calls on Owen Archer to look into the matter.

At first it seems like a simple enough case; the man was seen arguing with another gentleman in The York Tavern, and the following morning the dead man’s hand is found in his empty lodgings at the inn. However, the only witness to the murder is a young boy, who has disappeared, but before he vanished, he told of a cloaked woman who he saw talking to the victim. And yet, she too is missing.

As Owen tries to navigate his way through this strange killing, he soon finds that it is not only a murder he is drawn into, but politics surrounding the wool trade, and a plot that reaches the some of the very highest people in the kingdom. And where there is power, there is danger. Can Owen unmask the culprit before the danger and death toll increases?

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Lady Chapel. Although it is more complex than the first book in the series, Apothecary Rose (read my review here), it is no less gripping. It was one of those books that was very hard to put down.

Owen Archer and Lucie Wilton are thoroughly captivating as the stars of the story. There is a wealth of interesting characters to be found here, two of my favourites being Bess Merchet and Magda Digby, but the entire cast are engaging and bring the book to life.

The historical information provided is detailed and rich, adding an authentic atmosphere to what is already an enjoyable and entertaining story. York and medieval England is vividly brought to life, and with ease, ensuring that this book captures the attention of the reader from the very beginning and holds it until the very end.

Thoroughly recommended to fans of historical detective fiction. The Lady Chapel (and the series itself) is a great read and I am looking forward to rereading the third book in the series, The Nun’s Tale.

Book Review: The Queen’s Head by Edward Marston

The Queen’s Head is the first book in The Bracewell Mysteries by Edward Marston.

The story opens with the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots in Fotheringhay Castle in February 1587, revealing the political and religious tensions of the period.

Nicholas Bracewell, manager and bookholder of The Lord Westfield’s Men, a prominent theatrical company in London, decides to go for a drink with his good friend Will Fowler.  Will is an actor with the company and is in possession of a personality that not all appreciate.  However, not long after Nicholas and Will arrive at the pub, Will gets involved in a fight…a fight which leaves him dead and Nicholas swearing to hunt down his killer.

But Nicholas doesn’t have much to go on and the dark and dangerous streets of London are no place to go digging for the truth.  To make his life even more complicated, The Lord Westfield’s Men have been chosen to perform at the court of Queen Elizabeth I over Christmas…which is the highest of honours but also makes them a target…

I thoroughly enjoyed this first book in The Bracewell Mysteries.  The people and places were vividly described, ensuring that the story was a rich and colourful read.  The historical detail was comprehensive without being overpowering.  I was especially interested to read of the ins and outs of the Elizabethan theatre, of which I only had a limited knowledge prior to reading this book.  It was presented in an accessible and entertaining way, adding to the overall enjoyment of the story.

I am looking forward to reading book 2 in the series, The Merry Devils, to see how the characters and the series develop.

Book Review: Shadows In Bronze by Lindsey Davis

Shadows in Bronze is the second book in the Falco series by Lindsey Davis.

It is 71 AD.  Marcus Didius Falco, a private investigator living in Rome, has the rather unpleasant task of disposing of a body eleven days dead and decaying, a job given to him by the Emperor Vespasian.  The man was part of a conspiracy to overthrow the Emperor, and whilst his treasonous activities had caught up with him, the rest of the conspirators flee Rome.

But when they start dying in mysterious circumstances, Falco is sent to persuade them to return to Rome for their own safety and to try and make them see that Vespasian wants to reconcile with them, not make an example of them.  In order to do this, Falco must travel across Magna Graecia and the Campania in an attempt to track them all down.

His job is made even harder by the ever-present shadow stalking him wherever he goes.  Who is it?  And what do they want?

To complicate matters, his relationship with Helena Justina, a senator’s daughter, seems to be only getting worse.  And the further into the investigation he gets, the more it seems that Helena might somehow be involved…

Shadows in Bronze continues where The Silver Pigs (book #1 in the Falco series – read the review here) left off, and it does so seamlessly.

In this second instalment, we see a number of the characters we were introduced to in the first book make a welcome return, including Falco’s best friend Petronius Longus and the woman Falco has fallen in love with, Helena Justina.  We are also introduced to a number of a new faces: Larius, Falco’s nephew; Nero, an ox; Arria Silvia, Petro’s wife and Caprenius Marcellus, Helena’s dead ex-husband’s adoptive father.

The places visited as we move through the book are well-described and come to life with ease.  As Falco travels around the Bay of Naples especially, we see the Roman world at perhaps its most colourful…fancy boats, luxury villas and holiday homes, country estates whose vineyards climb the fertile slopes of Mount Vesuvius. (It is eight years before the cataclysmic volcanic eruption that destroys Pompeii and Herculaneum).

Lindsey Davis is an extraordinarily talented writer who manages to combine historical accuracy with a number of plots, sub-plots and a rich cast of characters, creating an engaging, entertaining and memorable read.

I can’t recommend this book (or the series) highly enough, and I am looking forward to re-reading book 3, Venus in Copper.

Book Review: The Apothecary Rose by Candace Robb

The Apothecary Rose is the first Owen Archer mystery by Candace Robb.

The year is 1363.  Owen Archer, the Welsh former Captain of Archers to the recently deceased Duke of Lancaster has been employed by John Thoresby, Lord Chancellor of England and Archbishop of York, as a favour to his dead friend.  Owen lost an eye whilst on campaign in France, changing his life overnight, and so now he seeks a new occupation.  But how will he fare as a spy?

His first mission sees him sent to York to investigate a series of mysterious deaths and the only thread linking them: Nicholas Wilton, a Master Apothecary in the cathedral city.  Only he has also fallen gravely ill.

Getting himself the position of apprentice at the apothecary in question, Owen must unravel the complicated web that has wrapped itself around this mystery if he’s to uncover the truth.  However, learning the craft of the apothecary from Lucie, the Master Apothecary’s young, beautiful wife as her husband is kept to his sick bed, Owen acknowledges to his horror, that she is perhaps foremost amongst the suspects…And as the number of deaths continue to increase, so do his suspicions…

This is another series that I love and am re-reading :-)

The Apothecary Rose is a captivating a novel, and the perfect first book in a series.  I love many of the main characters…Owen, Lucie, Bess Merchet, Magda Digby, Brother Wulfstan…they have depth and complexity, and their interactions bring the tale to life, adding richness and colour to an already enthralling read.

The descriptions of the people and places of the fourteenth century are fascinating and vivid, not to mention historically detailed and accurate.  The storyline is gripping and the further into the book I got, the harder I found it to put down.

I am looking forward to re-reading the second book in the series, The Lady Chapel. This is another great historical mystery series that I can’t recommend highly enough.  If the Middle Ages interest you or if you simply enjoy good, well-written historical fiction, you really should give these books a read.  I love them.

Book Review: The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis

The Silver Pigs is the first book in the Falco series by Lindsey Davis.

It is 70 AD.  Marcus Didius Falco is a private investigator in Rome.  Vespasian has only been emperor a short while, and after the Year of the Four Emperors, the Empire has yet to settle down again.

Whilst in the forum, Falco comes across a young pretty woman on the run from a couple of thugs.  Her name is Sosia Camillina.  Being the gentleman that he is, Falco makes the quick decision to help Sosia.

And so, with this small act begins his involvement in a trade corruption scandal, one that has the highest of ambitions and stretches from the furthest reaches of the Empire to it’s very heart.  Silver pigs from the mines in Britain – a place that Falco does not have fond memories of – have been going missing.  Now they have turned up in Rome.

When someone close to Falco ends up murdered, he is willing to do anything, no matter the cost, to uncover the truth and bring a killer justice…even return to Britannia, where he served his not so glorious stint in the army.  But what will he find when he gets there?

As I mentioned in this review I am currently returning to a few of my favourite book series. The Falco books by Lindsey Davis is one of them. I have absolutely loved each and every one of these books and they certainly get better and better with each re-read.

The Roman world the author describes is vivid and historically accurate.  As we travel across the length and breadth of the Empire – from Rome to the far-flung province of Britannia, we are given an evocative glimpse into the Roman world as it is brought to life with ease and in such a way as to make it accessible to those unfamiliar with this period in history.

Each and every character in the story has depth, and their respective roles and and interactions move fluidly through the story.  The book is peopled with realistic personalities; some you’ll like, some you won’t; some that will become firm favourites.

The Silver Pigs is a story that blends historical detail with tragedy, mystery and humour, weaving a novel that is hard to forget, and one that it’s hard not to get caught up in…a thoroughly mesmerising read…

I can’t recommend this book (or the series) highly enough, and I am looking forward to re-reading book 2, Shadows in Bronze.