Destroying Angel is the latest and best Damien Seeker novel, set in the aftermath of the English Civil War, perhaps because it’s even more personal than the first two stories. This novel is utterly gripping and the setting is impressively pitched. As for the characters, MacLean manages to draw together a fascinating bunch of central players who sit well in place and time. The Seeker is fast becoming my favourite historical proto-detective (not an actual detective but a crime solver). He’s very sharp, genuinely enigmatic, contradictory and fierce but he is also honest, and yet capable of springing surprises too. He’s a man the cause of the republic can rely on in dark complex times, but Destroying Angel will get very personal for the Seeker as he returns home to Yorkshire after many years absence.
September 1655, The Seeker has been sent to York, now under the command of Colonel Robert Lilburne, the man tasked with stamping out the Sealed Knot rebellion the year before. Now Yorkshire royalist Thomas Faithly has disappeared from the court of Charles Stuart. This troubles Cromwell’s spy master, John Thurloe. Faithly is a perceived as a traitor and a threat to the Commonwealth. The Seeker is sent to the village of Faithly Moor to see if the man has returned to the family estate. He also delivers state documents to the local commissioner Matthew Pullan, but Pullan is suspicious of The Seeker’s motives in coming because he exposed John Lilburne, brother of the Colonel, as a plotter against Cromwell back in ‘47. The Seeker assures him there is no connection, he is here to assess Edward Faithly, the heir to the family estates, a man who has never openly supported the royalist cause. The Seeker realises the local politics are fraught and factional, there are men bent on power exploiting divisions for their own ends. The village is in thrall to The Trier and the committee of ejectors, who are about to try the local vicar, Septimus Jenkins, accused of unsuitability for his post. The morning after The Seeker arrives Pullan’s ward Gwendolen is poisoned by the deadly plant Destroying Angel. The Trier, Caleb Turner, is a fraud, while posing as representative of the new puritan values, he is in fact a thief and an old enemy of The Seeker. When the Seeker sees Turner he loses control and attacks the man. He is sent back to York in disgrace, but Lilburne softens when he learns of the circumstances that occasioned the attack and sets The Seeker to complete his mission; find Thomas Faithly, Caleb Turner, and the murderer of Gwendolen. It gives him a chance to deal with a very personal issue at the same time.
Destroying Angel is the sequel to The Black Friar and The Seeker. These highly entertaining novels, set during the interregnum, are the finest historical crime series out there. Destroying Angel is set two years after Cromwell became Lord Protector, the land is pacified but still divided and in turmoil. MacLean has an impressive understanding of the complexity of the times and a way of conveying that without convoluting the story or slowing down the reading enjoyment but also making the uncertainty of the times very clear. A supper held in honour of the Trier early in the novel brings many of the characters together setting the scene brilliantly. The Seeker’s old enemy Lady Anne Winter returns to add some spice to the tale.
Captain Damian Seeker is a bluff Yorkshireman back on his own turf, a lot more of his mysterious background is revealed in this novel. At the end of The Black Friar when Thurloe sent The Seeker north, away from the heart of the new order, I was worried that some of the power and intensity of the stories would diminish but MacLean’s narrative arc across the three novels makes perfect sense (all fears were groundless). The Seeker, trusted for his discretion, handles the most dangerous investigations into the enemies of the Commonwealth none more fraught with danger than this one. The Seeker is loyal to Cromwell, incorruptible and rock steady in the cause of the Republic – a man who will stop at nothing to complete his mission and protect the State he has just fought to bring about. Only he is driven by personal passions this time and a brilliant use of backstory gives impetus to the Yorkshire narrative. MacLean is a great storyteller and a deft plotter with a strong sense of pace and intrigue. A mix of real people and events are interwoven into the story giving it a solid historical grounding. A great read.
Paul Burke 5/4
Destroying Angel by S.G. MacLean
Quercus 9781786484161 hbk Jul 2018