We seem to be blessed with a burgeoning historical crime fiction scene in Britain at the moment and Leonora Nattrass is one of the most impressive newcomers. Her debut Black Drop struck a chord with readers and critics alike in 2021, which was followed by Blue Water.
Her latest, Scarlet Town, is the third Laurence Jago mystery. It is 1796 and the amateur sleuth returns to his beloved Cornwall from America to find all is not well locally, nor across Britain. Once of the Foreign Office and still occasionally in the service of his former masters, Jago is now assistant to friend and journalist William Philpot. He is soon embroiled in a murder mystery that becomes very personal and the danger engulfs his family too.
In Blue Water, Jago had to uncover a conspiracy aimed at scuppering the new peace treaty between Britain and the United States, which took him to Philadelphia. With Philpott and his family, he has landed at Falmouth and before heading back to London the party plan a brief stop in Jago’s hometown of Helston. Both men are instantly aware that things have changed in their absence. On the dock they are the only two wearing wigs but, more importantly, a general election is approaching and the town is in tumult.
There’s an edgy excitement in the streets. The constituency of Helston has traditionally been under the control of the Duke of Leeds, who has always had men eligible to vote in his pocket. It’s a rotten borough, getting worse, and following some legal wrangling only two electors remain. This part of the story is inspired by the history of 18th century Helston. Across the nation a new radicalism is stirring and the authorities fear the fallout of the French Revolution, in full swing across the Channel. They are prepared to take a heavy hand and make no concessions on voting rights.
In Helston, the local people are fed up. The mayor is trying to launch a challenge to the Duke of Leeds’ men in the form of an alternative candidate, Mr Lushington. Hardly a man of the people, he’s actually the chair of the East India Company. Feeding off the vibe from the streets, Philpott sniffs a story and a chance to attack the iniquitous system which he hates. So they hang around.
No sooner are they settled in, observing the final throes of the campaigning, when one of the electors is murdered. Local feuds and a febrile atmosphere are further stirred. With Britain is at war with France and tension running high, the town becomes a potential powder keg ready to blow. The murder needs to be solved quickly.
Poisoning is suspected and Jago is drawn into finding the killer by the coroner. He is reunited with his cousin Pythagoras ‘Piggy’ Jago, now a doctor in Helston. The matter becomes more urgent when suspicion falls on Piggy. Meanwhile, not forgetting Jago is a young man, he is reacquainted with Anne Bellingham, a woman he was close to in Black Drop. He feared she may be Mrs Canning by now, so is there a chance for the pair to rekindle their friendship and maybe more?
Leonora Nattrass has an easy style that enfolds us into the story very quickly and, as with the best historical fiction, her writing wears the research lightly. It’s not just Jago who is at home in Cornwall, clearly the author is too. She not only captures the age but gives us a distinct flavour of county, its uniqueness, not the rural image we have today but that of the bustling towns and a tin mining-based economy.
Philpott is brilliantly vibrant and larger than life, based loosely on the radical William Cobbett – a perfect foil for the quieter Jago. His companion is our way into the story, the time and place. He is intelligent, shortsighted and impetuous and he has his own secrets – a little haphazard but likeable and fun to be with. The arc of his love life and growth as a young man are subtly played in the backdrop to his detecting of crime and facing up to danger.
Nattrass has given us three mysteries that are intriguing and entertaining and clearly of their time. If you like your history, Scarlet Town conveys some of the turmoil of the age and the daily detail with an authentic feel. In this case, we see the origins of radical thought with a little insight into the contemporary mindset. Crime or no I think fans of historical fiction would be drawn into these novels but the bonus of the murder mystery and the danger of the investigation just make it irresistible.
There’s a nod to the Golden Age of crime fiction with these novels. Blue Water, for example, is a locked room mystery, and clearly Nattrass likes to explore the genre because there are elements of the political thriller and the spy story here too. Apparently her next novel is a standalone but Jago will be back and that’s something to look forward to.
Also try DV Bishop’s The Darkest Sin.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars
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