The Last Protector
The Last Protector is the fourth book in Andrew Taylor’s series of historical mysteries featuring James Marwood and Cat Lovett. The majority of the historical mysteries I read (and that are published) are set in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, so I really like the fact that this series is set in a period that is not so familiar. The mystery part of the story works as a standalone, although I’d recommend reading at least one or two of the other books in the series in order to get a better sense of the Marwood/Lovett dynamic.
As in the previous three books, the story comprises a clever mystery that evolves slowly as the author gradually pulls together his different story threads and combines it with a wealth of interesting historical detail skilfully woven into the background. This story begins around four months after the events of book three The King’s Evil, and we find Cat Lovett now married to the elderly architect Simon Hakesby (and finding her marriage is not bringing her the security and stability she had expected), while James Marwood continues to prosper in his post as secretary to (and sometimes spy for) Joseph Williamson, Under Secretary of State to Lord Arlington.
It’s 1668, and Charles II’s extravagance and licentious behaviour have made him deeply unpopular, with many starting to hanker after the ‘more Godly’ days of the Protectorate. Nobody wants to return to the bloody days of civil war, but there are those close to the throne who would seek even greater power than they already have and threaten the already unstable position of the King and the monarchy in general.
When The Last Protector opens, Marwood is sent to observe a duel between the Duke of Buckingham – a favourite of the King – and Lord Shrewsbury, which ends with one man killed and Shrewsbury badly injured. Williamson needs a first-hand account of the proceedings; Buckingham is becoming increasingly powerful, which makes him a potential danger to the throne and the country – and Williamson and his master need a way to keep him in line.
Cat Hakesby is walking home through the streets of the Citywhen she is hailed by a woman she doesn’t immediately recognise. The woman is close to her own age and well dressed – and then Cat recalls her identity; she is Elizabeth Cromwell, granddaughter of Oliver, and she treats Cat like a long-lost bosom friend, talking eagerly and wistfully about the days they played together as children. Cat, however, has a completely different recollection and can’t help but be rather suspicious – and her suspicions are borne out when Elizabeth invites Cat and Hakesby to dinner, and then starts asking about the plans for the old Cockpit building in the grounds of the palace of Whitehall. Cat immediately realises that this is the real reason for Elizabeth’s chumminess – and also that the elderly gentleman she introduces as a family friend is in fact, her father Richard the titular Last Protector (he became Lord Protector of England after the death of his father, Oliver Cromwell, but his ‘rule’ lasted for only nine months) who has been living abroad in exile. If recognised he could be arrested, but he has come to England after receiving a letter written by his mother on her deathbed, which indicates that she left something – he hopes something valuable – within the old Cockpit building, and he wants to find it and use it to pay off his debts.
Cat wants to distance herself from the Cromwells immediately – merely associating with them could bring accusations of treason – but Hakesby, never a supporter of the King, is overjoyed at the thought of being of help to such a ‘great man’. Cat is nervous about the whole thing, and even though they haven’t seen each other for months, wants to talk to Marwood about it and ask for his advice. But her husband scrutinises all her movements and she cannot seek him out.
From these two disparate events – a duel and a not-so-chance meeting – Andrew Taylor weaves together a well-paced story of intrigue and escalating danger. When Buckingham learns of Richard’s presence in England and of Elizabeth’s friendship with Cat – whose father was one of those who signed Charles I’s death warrant – Cat finds herself at the centre of a dangerous conspiracy while Marwood has also run into problems which lead directly back to Buckingham and a plot to destabilise the monarchy.
As has happened in the previous books, Cat and Marwood find themselves embroiled in the same situation albeit in different ways and from different angles, but in this book, they interact rarely, unable to communicate openly because they are being watched by Buckingham’s men – and I confess I did miss their conversations and discussions. Theirs is an odd relationship; they’re not exactly friends but the things they’ve been through together have engendered a deep trust between them, and they seem able to understand and intuit certain things about each other that others do not. They’re very different personalities – Cat is sharp and prickly where Marwood is quieter and sometimes rather hapless, although he’s definitely growing as a character, becoming more courageous and confident in his own abilities and accomplishing some very skilful political manouevring at the end.
As always, the author makes excellent use of his historical backdrop and does a wonderful job of bringing Restoration London to life. The Last Protector is a well-crafted, well-researched novel that weaves together fact and fiction to form an intriguing and engrossing story, and I have no hesitation in recommending it to historical mystery aficionados – especially those looking for something set outside the Georgian/Victorian eras.