Book review: The Cheapside Corpse by Susanna Gregory

An outbreak of plague in the stinking ‘stews’ of St Giles is not the only cause of frightened whispers rippling through Restoration London.

By Pam Norfolk
Thursday, 29th January 2015, 9:00 am
The Cheapside Corpse by Susanna Gregory
The Cheapside Corpse by Susanna Gregory

There are rumours of a Dutch fleet invasion, a banking crisis threatens to leave Charles II’s government with no means of paying for the nation’s defence, omens predict a terrible disaster… and the Lord Chancellor’s new curtains are missing.

Only one man – former Parliamentarian spy turned royalist intelligencer Thomas Chaloner – can be trusted to restore order from chaos, and ensure that greedy financiers do not bring England to its knees.

Welcome back to the teeming, malodorous and dangerous streets of 17th century London and the restless, factional court of Charles II where plots abound, and spymasters and their agents must be forever on their guard.

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The Cheapside Corpse is the tenth book in Susanna Gregory’s remarkable Exploits of Thomas Chaloner series which remains as fresh, exciting and entertaining as the wily spy’s first outing in 2007.

These stories have become cult reading for history-mystery fans and it’s easy to see why.

Ingenious plotlines, a remarkably atmospheric evocation of time and place, a brilliant blend of real and fictional characters and some gloriously wry humour are the trusty trademarks of an author with her finger firmly on the pulse of Restoration England.

It’s the spring of 1665 and Thomas Chaloner, only recently back in London after a foray to Yorkshire, is called to the home of Earl Clarendon, the king’s ostentatiously wealthy Lord Chancellor.

Chaloner must track down some missing curtains… and investigate the murder of Dick Wheler, one of the few goldsmith-bankers in the city to have survived recent catastrophic losses which have driven others to bankruptcy, or worse.

It’s a problem close to Chaloner’s heart as his new wife Hannah, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine, has been running up some eye-watering bills. Their relationship is already turbulent, to say the least, and needs some serious work to prevent it ending in disaster.

At the same time, a French spy is staggering across the city, carrying the plague from one parish to another. As Chaloner digs into the world of the financiers who live in and around Cheapside, he quickly discovers that they are just as great a threat as the Dutch.

While their power and greed thwart him at every turn, the plague continues to spread across the city, and the body count from the disease, and from the fever of avarice, starts to rise with alarming speed…

The Cheapside Corpse is another wonderful adventure, packed with real history, intrigue, suspense, skulduggery and Chaloner’s judicious style of sleuthing.

And there are lighter moments to enjoy amidst all the perilous politicking. A wicked swipe at rapacious bankers – Earl Clarendon’s ‘fixer’ would see them all dispatched to the devil but his colleague doubts ‘Satan will want financiers in the dark realm’ – strikes a rather familiar chord.

Where next for the inimitable, inscrutable Thomas Chaloner?

(Sphere, hardback, £19.99)