An Honourable Thief (2022) by Douglas Skelton

In 1714, Queen Anne died, but her succession was not a smooth one. The son of Sophia of Hanover, the last Stuart monarch, became George I of England, but many – a large number of them from Scotland – favoured Anne’s brother, James, the Old Pretender, who had been removed from the line of succession due to being Catholic. Rumours abound about a letter written by Anne on her deathbed, making clear her preference for James, but that letter has vanished. Enter Captain Jonas Flynt…

1715, and the existence of the letter seems to be reality, and Jonas Flynt is charged with tracking it down. Flynt is a member of the Company of Rogues, a loose community of spies, and finds himself forced to return home to Edinburgh on the trail of the letter. But with London villains on his scent and trouble waiting for him – not least from his family and friends who he has not been in contact with for years.

Well, it’s review 1500. I was wondering what to read – an old favourite, re-read the first book I reviewed… – but then I decided that I’d try something new. After all, that was what the blog was supposed to be about. One thing I want to do this year is go back to more historical mysteries and so I went to the books that Santa brought me and grabbed this one. I’d asked for it as I’d heard it recommended somewhere as an excellent historical mystery.

Well, two out of three ain’t bad, as the mighty Meatloaf sang…

Oh, I should clarify, it’s the word “mystery” that is the questionable word in the phrase “excellent historical mystery”. Let’s take them one at a time, shall we?

“Excellent” – some books grab me, some books I have to grab (and force myself to keep holding on to them). One day, when I get my thoughts in order, I’m going to have to try and sort out what exactly makes a book readable. Well, certainly having a strong set of characters – not just the lead, but the support as well. Flynt is interesting, a war-scarred spy with questionable morals, but his family, his opponents, even small characters are well constructed without devoting pages and pages of exposition to them. All the character development comes allied to the plot, not as a digression. There are well-written action sequences – my only little quibble is that two important decisions at the end of the narrative are taken out of Flynt’s hands and it would have been interesting to see what decisions he would have taken.

“Historical” – based on real events regarding the succession and in Scotland in 1715, this gets bonus points due to covering a period of history that I know little about. Our Year 9 textbook ended with a short chapter on Anne, but we never got that far, so all I know is The Favourite starring Olivia Colman, which didn’t involve her dying. There are a couple of events that do seem to be diversions from the main plot, but there is important development therein and (mild spoilers) some events are more important than they might appear.

“Mystery” – the author refers to it in his note as an “historical adventure thriller” so it’s not supposed to be a mystery. There is a twist – and a very good one – but it’s not a whodunit in any sense. And to be fair, not even the blurb says that. In fact, I’m not even sure where I heard it was a mystery – there’s one author quote that uses the word, but only one. So to be honest, I’ve no idea where I got the impression from that it was a mystery. But I’m glad I did, as otherwise I might not have read it…

So, dear reader, if you are looking for a meticulously constructed classical whodunit with some history glued onto it, look elsewhere. However if you’re looking for a gripping historical spy-thriller with well-developed characters that you’ll want to read more about – there is a second book, A Thief’s Justice, on the way this May, and I’m really looking forward to it.

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