Please note: This is a review of an unrevised and unfinished fragment of a novel by Richard Blake. The Kindle version will soon be free from Amazon. In the meantime, you can download a free pdf of the novel from here.
In late 17th. century London, fledgling playwright Sarah Goodricke finds herself in the middle of a hanging procession and encounters a strange Irishman, who asks her to help speed the death of one of the condemned and then deposit a mysterious unopened package in the deceased’s breeches. We do not find out what is in the package – nor does the author, yet, as this is an unfinished story, released as a sample for new readers.
There is a Prologue at the beginning of the Kindle book that explains the nascent story plot and its historical context. This is a good idea, as it means that readers who are not familiar with the relevant period can understand the background to the story. England’s currency was in complete disarray during the period covered. Counterfeiting was rife; coins were being clipped, or even shipped abroad and melted down in France, as the bullion was profitable for arbitrage. This, and a broader recognition that the country needed its own national bank, prompted the creation of the Bank of England, which was formed under mass public subscription, imitating a similar Dutch institution of the time. One thing I had not realised and that is brought up here is that after the Glorious Revolution there were Orange government agents in England spying on the domestic population. Having done a little research of my own, I see that one of them in real-life was the notorious William Chaloner, the serial counterfeiter who was eventually hanged in 1699. He agreed to act as an agent provocateur for the government in order to entrap and apprehend conspiring Jacobites. We also learn in this story a bit about the relevant social history: especially how public hangings worked. Tyburn gallows was the place of execution for London and Middlesex until the late 18th. century. Blake takes us back to a much harsher time, of harsher people, very different from the softened world of today.
The author’s real name is Dr. Sean Gabb (Richard Blake is a nom de plume). Dr. Gabb is in favour of the decriminalisation of illicit drugs and here the main character is addicted to laudanum (opium) and constantly adds it to her coffee (perfectly legal of course during the period of this novel). The author’s (libertarian) views on other social issues can be subtly detected. This seems to have been a time in history with some strong parallels to our own: among the problems facing the characters are domestic spying, a debased currency, and a lack of free speech. The Glorious Revolution and the period of years immediately after it marked the beginning of an ‘English’ state and the advent of statisation and capitalism, and you can feel a sense of constriction in the story: a sense of England no longer a free country, true freedom slipping away.
Blake’s writing style is an interesting blend of punchy prose and historical sophistication. For his characters, ‘a spade is a spade’, but it’s done with a detailed eye for the period, of which the author clearly knows a great deal. All of the dialogue is very natural, very professionally done. I also like that Blake doesn’t overdo the atmosphere or wear his research heavy. We know we’re in the late 17th. century without Blake having to remind us constantly with over-description. Instead the author concentrates on moving matters along, and it all flows naturally, with just the right amount of contextual information to maintain interest without overbearing the reader. In the wrong hands, this literary restraint might have made the story seem too pacey and superficial, but here it works well – the sign of a self-confident writer.
Blake understandably speculates openly about where the story will take him, when it is finished. As I was reading, I developed some thoughts of my own about that. One possibility might be to introduce a new character, an agent despatched either by the Papacy or William III, who must track down Sarah, kill her, Polly and her father, and recover the package. Sarah discovers that this ruthless assassin is on her tail and has no choice but to try and take refuge with the other side. I’m thinking in particular of the novel Gallows Thief, by Bernard Cornwell, which uses a broadly similar idea set against a slightly later hanging in 1816. Another idea would be to give this a science fiction angle. Sean Gabb [a.k.a. Richard Blake] is the author of The Break, so may be open to this: the Irishman is a Papal agent from some time in the distant future, who has travelled back in time to deliver the package in an attempt to change history, and now the plan has gone awry and he has to recover it from Sarah. That leaves the question of why the package should be planted on one particular prisoner at Tyburn in those particular circumstances, and that could be one of the questions that the continued story answers.
Anyway, a superb beginning to a period thriller, and it left me in suspense. I hope the story can be concluded.
Review Published on Amazon on the 28th July 2017
© 2017, richardblake.
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