The Cheapside Corpse by Susanna Gregory

Rating 9.5/10
The finest historical murder mystery author alive today.

Tom Chaloner is back from a sojourn in Yorkshire and this time Susanna Gregory has him sleuthing everyone’s current detestable members of society - bankers. More precisely, it is the Goldsmiths of London who are rapidly getting richer and richer at the expense of... well everyone in London, to be honest. Everyone’s got a motive to murder it seems. Throw in embezzlement, curtain thievery, gangland struggles, musicians and medics and you've got another dirty investigation for our Restoration sleuth. The more immediate problem for Tom is closer to home given that his wife, Hannah, has mired them in so much debt they’re forced to sell everything and move out of their home for a while whilst he reluctantly takes employment from Spymaster Williamson to cover their debts. As he ruefully asks himself: “he walked… wondering what had possessed him to marry a woman with whom he had so little in common, and who was about to land him in a debtors’ gaol into the bargain.” Something many readers of Gregory have queried in past novels.

The plot in this latest instalment is as convoluted as we’d expect form Susanna Gregory: we open with a run on the banks that have left weaker goldsmiths either bankrupt or dead. The remainder are sitting pretty on mountains of gold: Backwell and Rich Taylor being top of the glittering pile. With them is the newest Cheapside crime king – Baron – a man with a sense of ‘honour among thieves’ yet a brutal personality when needed (and an odd love of horses). Meanwhile Earl Clarendon is tasking Tom to both get his missing curtains (a mission that involves him with the interior designer, Neve), to investigate Baron for the murder of Dick Wheler, and to deduce what happened to his dead spy, Georges DuPont. The latter’s been dead two months, Williamson couldn't figure out why… but Clarendon thinks it’ll be easy for Tom. Throw in a murder of a medicus, Coo, and you've got a trio of unexplained, but inextricably linked, murders to solve.

Off he goes into the depths of this novel to meet a host of nefarious, mendacious, gullible, sly, inept and oleaginous characters. Taylor has three sons: the cowardly bully, Evan, the laconic Randal – a man given over to profitable marriages and slanderous pamphlets – and Tom’s old friend, Silas. There’s Randal’s wife, Joan (ex-wife of the dead Wheler), who’s got a grudge against Baron because he's taken over the “brothels, gambling dens, and Protection Tax”. We also have Lettice and Shaw, a couple who own a musical shop; another physician is in the mix, Misick; the hired thugs Doe and Poachin, plus a host of other shady characters. There's also the usual haunts of Tom populated with familiar faces for those who have read all Gregory's novels ably led by both Temperance and Wiseman.

By the end of the book more are dead, the plague has struck, a madman is declaiming magical powers from a rooftop, Tom’s been both knocked unconscious and had to enter a blood pact with the assassin, Swaddell, the debts of all of London have caused riots, a cookbook has stirred up a feast of pain, houses have been burned down, and Tom’s found some unlikely friends in odd places. It all causes him “to wonder at the quirks of fate that had led him to join forces with a criminal and an assassin.”

It’s a sleuthing triumvirate that is oddly successful and brings a great deal of pleasure to the reader. Pretty swiftly the threads in Cheapside abound and, as ever with Gregory, we have to understand there’s likely to be several themes, plots, resolutions come the disastrous denouement.  Yet, as always with the finest historical murder mystery author alive today (bar none), we are treated to a deft handling of the tale, lose easy hours sunk reading in an armchair, plunge wholly into the world of Restoration London, cheering and groaning in cadence with Gregory’s wonderful narrative.

At the end of it all, there is but one reason for it all, as Lettice sagely observes: “that is what happens when a man so universally hated is dispatched.”

Indeed.

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