England 1657, and Christmas has been cancelled. King Charles I is dead and Oliver Cromwell rules the country with an iron hand. But secret sects of Royalists hope for the return from overseas of the future Charles II – small groups of The Sealed Knot, loyal to the Stuart throne, are springing up over the country, even in a small village in Essex, home of one John Grey.
John has just returned from studying law at Cambridge but after a night’s drinking, he wakes to a world of trouble. A Royalist spy is found with his throat cut – John saw a masked rider approaching the village inn in his drunken stupor but nobody else saw – or claims to have seen – the potential murderer. John finds himself incapable of letting the mystery rest. Somewhere in the village is a murderer and a traitor. And for some reason, John is in their sights.
L C Tyler, writer of the Ethelred and Elsie “Herring” series, a recent favourite of mine, has written an historical novel. In fact, on his website he refers to it as part of a second series on novels, but I can’t see any news of Book Two. He’s managed to choose an era which is, as far I know, untouched so far by historical crime writers – that of the Puritan reign of Oliver Cromwell. And he’s chosen an interesting perspective. From the modern day viewpoint, Cromwell is often seen as the villain of the day, unjustly usurping the throne (usurp is the wrong word, but you know what I mean) from King Charles I, but here the focus of the book is on the Royalist plotters being the bad guys. By making John Grey sympathetic to Cromwell’s regime (or at least not sympathetic to the Royalists), Tyler provides an unexpected point of view.
It’s an odd novel that may surprise Ethelred and Elsie fans – there’s only one narrator for a start and this time he’s a reliable one. It is often the case with “what the hell is going on”-style mysteries that a first-person narration can be difficult as the narrator is just as clueless as the reader and that makes it harder for the reader to form a cohesive picture of what is going on and what direction to (however vaguely) to look it. I don’t think A Cruel Necessity completely avoids that difficulty but as things come into focus in the second section, it becomes a very enjoyable read (as opposed to simply being a good one.)
Tyler’s humour is reined in somewhat from his usual fare, which is a good thing, but Grey is not without wit. Initially, I did think his voice was a little too modern for the time, but it quickly either settled down or simply stopped bothering me as the narrative took hold. And there’s a proper piece of code-breaking for the reader to have a go at as well – reminded me a little of something from Gyles Brandreth’s Big Book Of Secrets, a treasure from my very early youth.
On the downside, readers who are only interested in spotting the killer might be a little disappointed – to me at least, there were a few too many arrows pointing in their direction – but there’s a lot more to the plot than that and there are some genuine surprising revelations towards the end that set things up for an interesting second volume of John’s adventures. Let’s hope it’s coming soon. For the time being though, this one comes Highly Recommended.
UPDATE: Straight from the author’s mouth (or Twitter account) – Book Two, A Masterpiece of Corruption is out in January. Of course, I could have checked on Amazon but that would have been too easy…