The scene is London in 1667, the city recovering from the Great Fire the year before, with 80,000 people homeless and refugee camps established on the outskirts. Andrew Taylor introduces his readers to life as it survived there and involves them in the politics of Charles II’s court. Cobblestones are ‘slick with rain’, rushlights smell vile because of the rancid fats they were dipped in; in Covent Garden, thieves, peddlers and beggars ply their trades ‘like lice in a head of hair’ — and if you want to travel on a Sunday you must acquire a magistrate’s warrant.
The King’s Evil is the third in Taylor’s trilogy about the Great Fire of London, but stands in its own right. It concerns James Marwood, a government employee and friend of Cat Lovett, daughter of a regicide, who is accused of her cousin’s murder; Edward Alderley is found dead in a well at the mansion of Lord Clarendon, who has fallen out of favour with the King. Cat had been raped by her cousin and so has motive.
Fearing a conspiracy against her, she flees to avoid arrest, thus confirming her alleged guilt. The manner of Alderley’s death is presented dramatically in a gripping, shocking, opening chapter. Marwood is determined to protect Cat and prove her innocence, but he is entangled in the King’s intrigues and machinations. At severe risk to his own life he must serve the King and protect his Majesty from the blight of scandal.
The plot moves at pace; Taylor shifts voice adeptly between Marwood’s and third-person narration, and chapters end with cliff-hangers or enticingly unanswered questions: ‘Or did he have some other, deeper motive?’, ‘What in God’s name was she doing in this?’ It’s a novel filled with intrigue, duplicity, scandal and betrayal, whose author now vies with another master of the genre, C. J. Sansom.