My thanks to Rachel Quin at Headline for a widget of this book via NetGalley.
While a second in series, Traitor in the Ice was my introduction to the Daniel Pursglove series of historical mysteries by K.J. Maitland, a book I found to be an intense and engrossing read with excellent historical detail and atmosphere.
Our story opens in Jacobean England, specifically in the winter of 1607, two years after Guy Fawkes’ gunpowder plot was foiled and he was hanged, drawn and quartered. Everyone was expected to swear the Oath of Allegiance and those who didn’t would have their property forfeit and worse. Catholics and those of other faiths had to practice their religion in secret while ostensibly subscribing to the oath. In this background, Daniel Pursglove is charged by Charles FitzAlan, a confidant of James I to go to Battle Abbey, the residence of the formidable Lady Montague, a practicing Catholic, and a place where Catholic priests are known to be hidden. Not only that, they may be hiding plotters against the King, perhaps one of the conspirators of Fawkes’ plot. The man previously sent to investigate the house has been found dead, apparently in an accident, but most likely murder. But how Daniel is to find his way into Battle Abbey and find answers is left to him. Once he does (by both wit and luck), he finds a vast household with some hints of mysterious goings on and more than one person with secrets. But which of them are related to the mystery he is there to solve? And what could the secret be that the previous man uncovered that led to his death?
Meanwhile, the village outside the Abbey is troubled by a night creeper who roams the village at night shrieking and banging on doors; small animals like chickens are found missing in the morning and pigs and even a cat dead. But what is this night creeper—an animal, a spirit or a human being? Alongside in London, we also follow goings on around court, with Richard Fairfax, the son of the man who raised Daniel, and his friend Sir Christopher Veldon try to improve their standing at court, while Richard’s young cousin Oliver looks on.
This was a historical mystery with a great deal of substance in terms of its historical detail, setting and atmosphere and I enjoyed it a lot. We get a good sense of the broader historical developments in the period, the scenario at court and in London (from James’ temperament to court politics, the decadence and dissipation, and the hostility against Scots among the general populace) and also the smaller details of everyday life (pleasant and unpleasant). The author’s historical note at the end of the book also helpfully points out the historical characters and real-life events that she wove into the book.
The atmosphere in the book is also really well done. Maitland manages to put across the tensions that were rife at the time, also reflected in life at Battle Abbey. Lady Montague continues to practice her faith, and priests reside at the abbey while others are smuggled in and out. Everyone must tread carefully and everything done in secrecy. There is a constant threat of ‘leopards’, men trained to search suspicious homes thoroughly and uncover priestholes and hiding places. Servants and those in the lower rungs are especially worried for Lady Montague is no longer young, and without her protection, their position will be even more precarious. While not impacting the Abbey, the night creeper and the terror he is creating among villagers adds to this. And this fraught atmosphere is made worse by the great frost of 1707–1708, which was so extreme that trees were exploding from the cold. (This was something I’d never heard of before but on looking up I found that this has also been happening recently, in fact last month in Texas, because of sap freezing and contracting, and produces sounds like bullets being fired.)
The mystery too, was an interesting one; not a whodunit as such but one where Daniel must pick up clues and information as he goes and discover who was responsible. There are many with secrets and he must piece together whether and how they link up. There is also a broader storyline of a traitor (the additional Fawkes conspirator) that FitzAlan is attempting to trace out, and Daniel’s own background and story which runs across the books, and which also has additional threads of mystery.
Because of this, it makes more sense for the books to be read in order. I didn’t read the first book before this, and while that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book as such as the mystery was more or less complete, with the broader storyline, while one can follow along, one does get the feeling that one is missing something.
But a very enjoyable read overall, with an interesting mystery and wonderful historical detail. 4 stars.