Review: THE DROWNED CITY, by K.J. Maitland

Published by Headline Review in hardback, paperback, ebook and audio.

Hardback published 1st April 2021, £16.99

A book by KJ Maitland is always something to savour. She has an enviable reputation both as a crime writer and expert in the beliefs and daily lives of our ancestors.

In previous books she has delved into the superstitions and macabre beliefs of peasants. Always keen to experiment, she has tested some of the stranger notions in her own way, but without murdering a hen or using a cauldron.

This is not a book about ghosts and witches, though. This is a wonderful evocation of England under the new King, James 1, after the death of Elizabeth 1, and at a time of terrible civil distrust. Guy Fawkes and his companions had conspired to blow up Parliament and the King, and hatred of others based on their religion was endemic. This period saw the whole kingdom was on the brink of riots and murder. Catholics were forced to hide; if not, they must run. After the Guy Fawkes plot, no Papist was trusted. Catholic households, or suspected Catholics, were threatened by the mob. Many were dragged from their homes and murdered in the streets.

Bristol in particular was thought to be a hotbed of spies for the Catholic states. Elizabeth had ruled with an iron grip under her spymasters, and it was their constant vigilance that kept her kingdom safe, but now that James held the throne, discontent had grown. The English were not convinced of his aims. He brought many Scottish barons with him to London, and appeared to have little respect for Parliament.

And now, in January, a terrible disaster struck: a Tsunami that rushed up the Severn.

The massive wave all but destroyed Bristol, flooding the land for miles all around, rushing up the Bristol Channel, inundating the low-lying regions of Devon, Somerset and beyond. This was no mere chance – it had to be a sign. The dreaded “Papists” were responsible, as the broadsheets proclaimed. Men would ignore this proof of God’s displeasure at their peril. Papists must be rooted out and destroyed.

Into this mix stepped (the newly named) Daniel Pursglove, a convict who had been waiting to die in Newgate, until Charles FitzAlan, an adviser to King James, offered him a job which, if he was successful, would save him from the gibbet. Fail, and his death would be as painful and horrible as any contrived for the Fawkes conspirators. {These first pages are quite superb, giving the best description of life in Newgate I have seen.}

What was known by Cecil, the King’s intelligencer, was that, at the time of the conspiracy, four Jesuits had been captured. What he also knew, but other people did not, was that there was a fifth man called Spero Pettingar. After Fawkes and his conspirators were caught, Pettingar fled, abetted by the Catholic network, and now FitzAlan has reason to believe he is hiding in Bristol. 

All Pursglove had to do was go to Bristol and find this Jesuit. But who exactly was FitzAlan? Could he be trusted? And the Jesuits would not willingly submit. Could Pursglove, on his own, hope to discover the whereabouts of Pettingar, and escape the notice of the enemy’s spies and supporters?

He must search amongst ruins of the city, speaking to those he could find, the tradesmen, while evading the criminal gangs, low-lifes and thieves, and he must put his own life in jeopardy, all in the hope that he might at last win his freedom. But could he trust FitzAlan to hold true to his word?

All right, I’ve given you about the first twenty-five pages in that summary, but that won’t spoil anything. All you need to know about THE DROWNED CITY is that it’s a spy novel, a crime novel, and interwoven with the politics of the time. It is a truly superb evocation of the period and the devastation wrought by the tidal wave that almost destroyed Bristol (yes, it did happen, it’s not made up).

K.J. Maitland is the mistress of genuine research, and she brings all her talents to bear in this book. It’s the kind of story that will keep you up all night (it did with me), with a brilliant, strong cast of characters, a wonderfully edgy atmosphere, and a plot that keeps you guessing right through to the last page. More than that, this book has a brilliantly conceived crime story at the heart of it, which was both deeply satisfying and elegantly described.

Not only that, we’re promised that this is to be the first in a new series – and that is something I am looking forward to immensely. 

Just wonderful. This is a highly recommended historical thriller from a lady who is at the very top of her game. Now I’m just looking forward to the next in the series!

EXTRACT from Headline

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