Book review: The Chelsea Strangler by Susanna Gregory

The Chelsea Strangler bySusanna Gregory
The Chelsea Strangler bySusanna Gregory

The Plague is rampant in the summer heat of London in 1665 and the king has fled the city… but royal spy Thomas Chaloner has murder on his mind.

Still reeling from witnessing one of the most ferocious battles of the Second Anglo-Dutch War and receiving a shocking piece of news, the wily agent must stay put, track down a vicious killer and ensure the safety of the realm.

Former police officer Susanna Gregory, author of two brilliant historical crime series, plunges us into an addictive cauldron of death, disease and danger in the eleventh Thomas Chaloner adventure.

Gregory never fails to impress with her immaculate research, creating an exciting and vivid historical, social and political backdrop and embellishing her stories with authentic detail and thrilling atmosphere.

These intriguing mysteries evoke the teeming, malodorous 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.

And who better to lead us through the city’s royal courts, stinking alleyways and leafy suburbs than former Parliamentarian spy Chaloner, the trusty turncoat whose adventures and misadventures have become cult reading for fans of historical crime novels.

Despite the hard-won naval victory at the Battle of Lowestoft, in which hundreds of men died, there is little celebration in London where the intense sun and a serious outbreak of Plague are sapping the strength of those still living there.

King Charles, his retinue and anyone with sufficient means has fled the plague-ridden city as its half-deserted streets echo to the sound of bells tolling the mounting number of deaths.

Those who remain clutch doubtful potions and preventatives like tobacco and treacle to ward off the relentless disease, and dart nervously past shuttered buildings, ever wary of the thieves who risk their lives to plunder what has been left behind.

At Chelsea, a rural backwater by the river, with fine mansions leased to minor members of the royal court avoiding the capital, there are more immediate concerns… the government has commandeered the old theological college to house Dutch prisoners of war and there are daily rumours that these fearsome sailors are on the brink of escaping.

And to make matters worse, a vicious strangler is stalking the Chelsea neighbourhood. Chaloner is sent to investigate the murder of the first victim, an inmate of Gorges, an asylum calling itself a private sanatorium for ailing gentlewomen.

There have also been thefts but the few facts Chaloner gleans from inmates and staff are contradictory and elusive. However, he soon discovers that Gorges has stronger links to the temporary Dutch PoW prison than just its short distance.

The more recent influx of strangers to the asylum offers plenty of camouflage for a killer… a killer who has no compunction about turning on those determined to stop his murderous rampage.

Gregory’s remarkable Exploits of Thomas Chaloner series remains as fresh, exciting and entertaining as the intelligent and quick-thinking spy’s first outing in 2007.

Ingenious plotlines, a remarkable evocation of time and place, an exhilarating blend of real and fictional characters and some gloriously wry humour have become the trusty trademarks of an author with her finger firmly on the pulse of Restoration England.

Suspense, skulduggery and sleuthing in perfect historical harmony…

(Sphere, hardback, £19.99)