When London burned like rotten sticks

St Paul’s ablaze in 1666 makes a vivid backdrop to Andrew Taylor’s latest thrilling novel

9 April 2016

9:00 AM

9 April 2016

9:00 AM

The Ashes of London Andrew Taylor

Harper Collins, pp.482, £14.99, ISBN: 9780008119089

Spectator readers know Andrew Taylor from his reviews of crime fiction. Many will also know him as an admirable writer of the stuff. In a recent issue, however, he remarked that there are fewer murders now, and added that this made things difficult for crime novelists. Detection has been taken over by the scientists, DNA providing the solution more reliably than Hercule Poirot’s little grey cells. Find a suspect and DNA will tell you if he dunnit.

This is boring. So it’s not surprising that for crime writers the future looks to be the past, where science is primitive and the police have no computer database — where indeed there may be no regular police force at all.

London is burning. It’s 1666, not 1940; it’s the Great Fire, and St Paul’s is ablaze. Marwood, a young man who narrates part of the novel, watches fascinated and then pulls a young boy from the flames. The boy is actually a girl and bites his hand to free herself. She is called Cat, and her story, told in the third person, alternates with Marwood’s. They are connected, though they don’t know it, through their fathers, both of whom are Fifth Monarchy Men: religious zealots and Republicans. Marwood’s is now senile, Cat’s anything but; he is still politically active, dangerous and ruthless. The search for him is at the heart of
the novel.

When young Marwood was a boy he sat on his father’s shoulders to watch the
execution of Charles I. It gave him nightmares for months afterwards. To the father, the King was ‘the Man of Blood’; to the son, a sad-looking gentleman who met his death with courage and dignity. Now Marwood works for the government, having surprisingly obtained the job for reasons of which he is ignorant and which we learn only when he does, in the last chapters of the novel. Meanwhile, he is employed as an agent and spy, investigating murders, sent on mysterious missions. He is as matter-of-fact and resourceful as a Dick Francis hero.

Cat was searching for her father on the evening of the fire’s outbreak. She is a girl with a quick temper and a passion for architecture. The first gets her into trouble — she stabs a rapist and has to go into hiding. The second may be her salvation.

The plot is gripping, fast-moving and credible, reaching a climax in the ruins of St Paul’s. The descriptions of the great cathedral, and what remains of medieval London — notably Alsatia, a sanctuary for criminals, bankrupts and derelicts — invite comparison with Victor Hugo’s evocation of Notre-Dame de Paris and meet this formidable challenge.

Sensibly, Taylor, like C.J. Sansom in his Tudor mysteries, eschews period language; the dialogue, and Marwood’s narrative, are written in a neutral timeless English which doesn’t jar. It’s a well-constructed political thriller with moments of horror, admirable and enjoyable. Taylor has done his research so thoroughly as to be unobtrusive, and one has the impression that he delights in his freedom from the restraints imposed by the requirements of police procedure and forensic science on the crime novelist today.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £14.99 Tel: 08430 600033

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments