An avid reader, Stephen's knowledge of Crime Fiction is fairly extensive, with The Golden Age is his greatest interest.
London in the summer of 1665, a plague ridden city bereft of its Monarch, his Court and most of the wealthy citizens. Thousands dying every week, it is hot and fetid in the middle of a heatwave. This is the stifling setting for Thomas Chaloner’s eleventh adventure.
The country is at war with Holland, the Monarchy has only recently been restored after the dark days of the end of the Commonwealth. Revenge has been taken on some of the Roundheads but, others still have their supporters. The nation is still unstable and there is suspicion and mistrust everywhere. The situation would be dangerous enough without the outbreak of bubonic plague.
Susanna Gregory mesmerizingly brings this troubled time to life as she plays with the fear, suspicion and political intrigue that had the country gripped. Neighbour fears neighbour and even friends are mistrustful and suspicious of each other. Who may have the plague? But, almost more worrying is who is a spy reporting on your every move. Yet for some, all inhibitions seemed to have been tossed aside after the restrictions imposed by the strict moral code of the last government.
Chaloner, the Lord Chancellor's spy is back from the naval Battle of Lowestoft to be given the shock news that his wife has died of the plague. All she left was a note that appears to be the mumblings of a fevered mind. He is then asked to investigate the mental asylum known as "Gorges" where thefts have been reported.
The asylum is for ladies of gentlefolk and occupies Gorges House a mansion in Chelsea, that is supported by the Lord Chancellor who is the Earl of Clarendon. But, Chaloner is also told of another more serious crime that has been committed there. A woman resident has been strangled.
There is greed, hatred and suspicion among the Officers of the King's Court, each hoping to better his political and social rivals to receive patronage, status and to earn his fortune. Chaloner considers there are eight suspects who might have committed the thefts and or the murder, all are Officers of the Crown. These are the five Governors of the asylum and three Commissioners for the Care and Treatment of Prisoners. The Commissioners have responsibility for the imprisonment of Dutch sailors, captured at the Battle of Lowestoft. They are housed in a former Theological College on the outskirts of the village of Chelsea.
It is not long before another murder is committed, this time in London in Clarendon House, the Earl’s home, while a reception is being held for minor courtiers. The suspects were all at the reception. However, as the strangled man, Mr Underhill, is one of Chaloner’s suspects he has only seven to investigate now.
Chelsea is where Chaloner must go now. This is where many of the wealthy citizens and minor courtiers have fled to escape the heat and disease of the city. But, before leaving London word reaches him that another murder has been committed. Again, it is one of Chaloner’s suspects, Mr Kole, who has been found strangled in a mansion in Chelsea where he was as guest.
The village of Chelsea is a rural oasis outside the city. It is plague free and the authorities want it to stay that way. The roads have soldiers stationed on them to deter visitors who may have the dreaded disease. However, those city dwellers who have made it passed the road checks have created plenty of attention with their raucous outdoor parties and licentious behaviour.
As Chaloner questions the local villagers it becomes apparent that many connect the murders with the sightings of a spectre, a dark, evil figure in a long coat that has begun to haunt the village. The sightings though appear to only date to when the prisoners arrived. Chaloner decides after making a visit to the prison that he must know what really goes on there. Somehow he will have to break in to find out who is housed in a separate court that no one may visit.
Can he solve the thefts and how many more will die before he finds the Strangler in this gripping story of intrigue and murder? Who or what is behind the spectre bringing fear to the streets of Chelsea?