Traitor in the Ice by K J Maitland: Packed with real history, priests, puritans, peril and plot twists – book review –

Two years on from the treasonous Gunpowder Plot of 1605, one of the perpetrators is still at large and unrepentant Catholics are still ready to kill for their forbidden beliefs.

By Pam Norfolk
Tuesday, 12th April 2022, 3:45 pm
Traitor in the Ice by K J Maitland
Traitor in the Ice by K J Maitland

There are rumours that this last Catholic conspirator might be hiding out, alongside priests and foreign spies smuggled in from abroad, with a recusant Catholic family at Battle Abbey in Sussex. One infiltrator has already been murdered in pursuit of the truth. Can the King’s most mysterious intelligencer succeed where he failed?

Karen Maitland, much-loved author of a string of spooky medieval mysteries but writing here as K.J. Maitland, returns with her intriguing Crown spy Daniel Pursglove – a man with a past and an uncertain future – in the second book of a thrilling historical series set in the early years of the reign of James I.

Steeped in the power play of a volatile period of English history – when the paranoid King James was still living in the shadow of the daring attempt to blow up Westminster – this exciting, authentic and superbly researched series brings us both page-turning mysteries and a fascinating exploration of the dark heart of Jacobean court politics.

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Harnessing the real-life Great Frost in the bitterly cold winter of 1607-8 – when many English rivers froze solid enough to walk on – Maitland sweeps us away to Battle Abbey, home of the real-life Viscountess Magdalen Montague, a cunning, recusant Catholic widow in her seventieth year whose secret activities walked a fine line between risk and outright treason.

In November of 1607, cannons are firing and crowds are gathering in London to mark two years since the Gunpowder Plot despite the bitter cold that they are calling the ‘wolf’s bite’ because it’s sinking its teeth deep into the heart of the land.

Paranoia still reigns, there are ‘eyes and spies’ in every street and resentment of the Scots is growing, an unease not helped by King James’s new ‘favourite,’ a dashing young Scottish horseman called Robert Carr.

Across the city, in Rotherhithe, priest hunter and pursuivant Daniel Pursglove, just one of the false names he has adopted during his thirty years, is summoned by Charles FitzAlan, a close adviser to the King, and ordered to infiltrate Battle Abbey and find proof of treachery.

An earlier attempt to infiltrate by another spy, Master Benet, failed when he was struck down in the grounds of the abbey, home to the Montague family and a place which has caught the paranoid eye of the King because it is close to the coast and the perfect place to hide newly-arrived spies and priests.

So far, Viscountess Montague has avoided being brought to justice because she has powerful protectors on the Privy Council who claim that she is just ‘a frail old woman of delicate breeding’ but it is rumoured she sits at the heart of the Catholic network.

Some say that her household disguises those loyal to the Pope as servants within the abbey walls and Daniel soon discovers that nearly everyone there has something to hide – and for deeds far more dangerous than religious dissent.

But there is one lone, mysterious figure that Daniel senses only in the shadows and carefully concealed from the world. Could the missing, notorious Gunpowder Plot traitor Spero Pettingar finally be close at hand?

And as more bodies are unearthed, Daniel is determined to catch the culprit… but how do you unmask a killer when nobody is who they seem?

Suspicion, superstition and spine-tingling suspense abound in this atmospheric trip to a land where frosted air sucks heat from human limbs, bracken is encased in ice coffins, and iron-hard ground is a torture for frozen travellers.

But danger comes from human nature as well as the natural world… many Catholics have not given up their fight against the new Protestant King whose constant fears of a religious plot have made him perilously unstable and paranoid.

In her trademark style, Maitland brings a past world to vivid life with her richly detailed scene-setting and masterful storytelling, enabling readers to feel the bone-chilling cold funnelling through the abbey’s roof, smell the fires in the stone pits, and sense menace and death in the frozen air.

At the heart of this dark and addictive story are the enigmatic Daniel – a man whose Catholic upbringing has rendered him constantly under suspicion – and the intriguing Magdalen Montague whose unquenchable spirit and survival skills caught the imagination of Maitland during her research.

Packed with real history, priests, puritans, peril, plot twists, and an entertaining glossary of 16th century words and phrases, Traitor in the Ice is a dark and dazzling addition to a cracking series.

(Headline Review, hardback, £16.99)