"A deftly plotted book, with plenty of twists and turns, all the more remarkable for being based on real events."
Titus Oates, an unknown preacher, creates panic with wild stories of a Catholic uprising against Charles II. The murder of a prominent Protestant magistrate appears to confirm that the Popish Plot is real.
Only Nathaniel Thompson, writer and Licenser of the Presses, instinctively doubts Oates’s revelations. Even his young wife, Anne, is not so sure. And neither know that their friend William Smith has a personal history with Titus Oates.
When Nathaniel takes a public stand, questioning the plot and Oates’s integrity, the consequences threaten them all."
Anyone who has read any of my reviews will know that I'm not a huge fan of first-person narrative. However, here we have the first person in the present tense, and that seems to work a little better for me. And not just one person, either, but three different points of view. This way, we get a good picture of each character, as seen through another's eyes.
This is a deftly plotted book, with plenty of twists and turns, all the more remarkable for being based on real events. The terror of the times - where men could be hanged simply on the uncorroborated evidence of a determined trouble-maker - is depicted well. Titus Oates and his revelations of the so-called Popish Plot caused chaos, striking fear into the hearts of many, at a sensitive time towards the end of Charles II's reign, where the prospect of his brother, the Catholic James, as successor, was a contentious issue.
At first, people are willing to believe the worst of the Catholics and Oates finds an enthusiastic audience for his fantasies, but Nat Thompson is not convinced. He sets out to show Oates up for the charlatan that he is, and in doing so, puts his family and friends in danger. Danger, by the way, comes in many forms, and the way that even Nat and his wife Anne find themselves initially at odds astutely shows how rumours take hold and put people at odds with each other. Mistrust and fear cause folk to behave in ways they would ordinarily not consider, and this was depicted well.
Much of this book is based on real events, particularly the court proceedings and at times I wished for a little less reported speech, and more direct action. However, the book is fast-paced, with so many revelations that it must have been a hard task for the author to resist piling all the information on to us in one go, when only she knew what was coming next.
Nat and Anne are great characters. Nat's tenacity is almost his undoing, and while he is an arrogant man when we first meet him, he grows and changes as he sees the consequences of his actions. Anne is a determined woman, though a little lacking in self-awareness at the beginning of the book, and she too, develops in a realistic, utterly believable way. William is less of an admirable character but he is so flawed, and so self-aware, that it is impossible not to sympathise with him. In some ways, he is the most interesting of the three who tell this tale between them. Henry, the fourth main character, is wonderfully drawn; a principled man who also mellows as time goes on, and in the face of Anne's mission to smooth away his corners.
I did find a typo and at one point wondered whether a phrase was period-correct, but this is a wonderful depiction of how 'ordinary' folk became so vulnerable when Oates and his cronies set out to destabilise the realm and spread their lies and worse. For me, the only thing missing was a wider perspective and it would have been interesting to hear a little more from inside the court about how the scheming Oates was perceived there. Oates, by the way, is portrayed exactly how I've always imagined him and let's just say, in case anyone is eating while reading this, that throughout the book, the smells and sounds of people and of seventeenth-century London generally, are described in all their 'glory'.