Friday, May 27, 2022

Seventeenth-century events echo in the present in Evie Hawtrey's historical thriller And By Fire

Evie Hawtrey’s dual-period mystery marks the debut of a new pseudonym for Sophie Perinot, who has previously written historicals about female royals (and has contributed to other collaboratively-written novels). Switching genres can pose a creative challenge for writers, though based on my experience reading And By Fire, the author's style is a natural fit for crime fiction.

The novel's modern thread takes the form of a London-based police procedural, and the historical tale (or rather, tales) takes place during the Great Fire of 1666. Somehow, the crimes in both areas are connected… but what could possibly link them across more than 350 years? For one clever perpetrator, the past clearly does not lie quietly.

The settings have a very British feel in all aspects, including the characters’ vocabulary. Nigella Parker, Detective Inspector with the City of London Police in the present, won me over with her no-nonsense attitude and wry wit. She and her counterpart at Scotland Yard, former lover Colm O’Leary, get called in to investigate a case of nuisance arson: a human-shaped wooden figure is found, burned, at the base of the monument to the Great Fire. Nigella’s specialty is arson cases, and her intuition tells her the crimes will escalate, since the “weird ones have a habit of getting weirder,” she says. She’s right. All too soon, Nigella and O’Leary are tracking a murderer who seemingly wants to stick it to Sir Christopher Wren, the legendary English architect.

And in the 17th century, Margaret Dove, lady-in-waiting to Charles II’s Portuguese queen, Catherine of Braganza, is falling in love with a lower-born man, Etienne Belland, His Majesty’s fireworks-maker. Margaret is a woman of science, or would be if her gender didn’t prevent formal study. She struggles to avoid being matched with an unwanted suitor and to overcome the poor prognosis for her health. When a bookseller friend of the couple goes missing amid the conflagration that engulfs London, they need to learn what happened.

Vivid scenes of the Great Fire placed me amid the chaos as flames sweep through the city, people flee with their families and goods, and the King and his brother try in vain to halt the spread. Tension literally and figuratively heats up, since for some, the destruction proves to be an all-too-tempting opportunity. I also appreciated the attention to social class, such as the reaction of Etienne’s family once they realize Margaret is a noblewoman. In the present day, Nigella and O’Leary use all the tools at their disposal, like interviews with witnesses, CCTV footage, and the work of a forensic sketch artist. The two have obvious chemistry, which Nigella – who has moved on to a new lover, James – chooses to ignore for the time being.

Briskly paced and sharply written with multilayered characters, the story left me thinking about the factors that motivate people to commit crimes, and the strategies it takes to solve them in different eras.

And By Fire was published by Crooked Lane in May (I read it from a NetGalley copy).