There aren’t many historical series that I follow religiously; this, however, is one, because you won’t find many period crime novels that match The Seeker series for insight and evocation of time and place. Set during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, The Bear Pit captures something of the complexity of the age; the thinking, the machinations of the political and religious world, and, even, the smell and sweat of the south bank stews. Icing on the cake, this novel is also thrilling; an intriguing and enjoyable murder mystery. The Bear Pit is tense and the denouement is heart stopping, a desperate moment for followers of The Seeker.
1656. Captain Damian Seeker has returned to London from York where he was investigating a cabal of royalists and local landowner Sir Thomas Faithly, recently seen at Charles Stuart’s court in France. The Seeker, most trusted agent of John Thurloe, Cromwell’s Chief Secretary, not only uncovers Faithly’s plans, the man was sent to the Tower, but solves a murder too. The Seeker’s work is not done, however, as there are many threats to the Commonwealth and to the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. There is a growing dissent among not only royalists, but parliamentarians, levellers and other factions too.
Much as I loved Destroying Angel, set in the North Riding, I am glad that Captain Seeker is now back in the capital, at the seat of power. The Bear Pit has greater scope for MacLean’s fictional characters to mix with the great and the good of the age; Downing’s secretary, Samuel Pepys, Andrew Marvell and John Evelyn all feature as well sketched cameos. The Seeker is now living with his daughter for the first time but his relationship with the woman he loves, Maria, is still strained. The Seeker is about to uncover a murder and stumble upon a conspiracy that threatens not only the Commonwealth but everything the Seeker holds dear in life.
Captain Damian Seeker is a magnificent creation, a larger than life character but the more we learn of his past the more we realise things run deep for the bluff Yorkshireman. He is dangerous, brutal, single minded, and incorruptible in the cause of the Commonwealth. He’s very sharp, enigmatic, and contradictory, capable of springing a surprise or two. He’s a man the cause of the republic can rely on. He is honest. Avoiding the temptation to attribute modern sensibilities and moral codes to a past age I would say he is an heroic figure. Rock steady for the Republic – a man who will stop at nothing to complete his mission and protect the State he has fought to bring about. So, strange to say, I’m aware he’s a killer and over zealous in his duties, but I rather admire him. He is the Philip Marlowe of his day. MacLean has created a fine supporting cast: radical love, Maria, spicy royalist femme fatale, Lady Anne Winter, and spy master John Thurloe. The strong women add a richness to the story both romantically and politically.
17th September, 1656. Outside Westminster Abbey three men, Boyes, Fish and Cecil, are preparing for the moment the Chief of Men, Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell emerges from the east door of the building. They have borrowed a nearby house from a tame royalist colonel, he is away somewhere. A scaffold had been erected on the side of the house, this is where Cecil will take the shot. At close range the blunderbuss, the only weapon they could smuggle this close, should do the job. This assassination has been planned in conspiratorial circles in Cologne and Bruges over the past eighteen months, England is to be secured while the king, Charles Stuart, is fetched. When Cromwell emerges from the Abbey everything happens quickly, the crowd soon mobs the Lord Protector and the life guard surrounds him. As Cromwell approaches the would-be assassin, the Seeker is in the way of the shot and the operation has to be aborted. Boyes swears to kill the usurper and wreak vengeance on Damian Seeker.
End of October that year, Chief Secretary Thurloe listens to a new report from Captain Seeker but there are too many tales of plots and traitors, and this man, Fish, cannot be a made priority without some concrete evidence. So, even though Downing’s secretary, Pepys, and Stoupe, their spy in France, have mentioned Fish, the Seeker knows to drop the matter. His old sergeant, Daniel Proctor, has a raid planned on a gambling den in Bankside and the Seeker decides to join him, keep his hand in. Lambeth is a den of iniquity; gambling, bear baiting, brothels, taverns, and the Marshalsea and Clink prisons. The gambling den they are after is frequented by low level royalists. The soldiers burst in, the Seeker makes for the stairs and catches a man trying to escape by the window, his dagger pinning the man to the frame. Sir Thomas Faithly, fresh from the Tower on the Seeker’s parole, he is supposed to be keeping a low profile. With the men in custody, the Seeker attends to his dog barking outside an outhouse, he smashes the lock and enters with Faithly in tow. They discover a body, a man chained to the wall, elderly and half eaten. Only one creature could have done this but they were all supposed to have been destroyed, there are no bears in London.
The Seeker investigates, it’s not a matter for Thurloe, so he calls on Thomas Pride, High Sheriff of Surrey and Commissioner for the Peace of London, for help. While investigating, the Seeker sees his old friends Samuel and Maria Ellingworth for the first time since he rode north last year. Maria is as beautiful as ever but she has rejected him, it’s a frosty meeting.
Boyes and Fish are more determined to make another attempt on Cromwell’s life. They have a source in his inner circle. Meanwhile a stranger from Yorkshire is looking for the Seeker.
The Bear Pit is a heady mix of thriller, love story and political intrigue. This is a small world and the men of the day, the artists, scientists and poets are also part of the political world. The dashing darling of the royalist cause Rupert makes an appearance but to tell you more would be a spoiler. The use of real people and documented attempts on the life of Cromwell in The Bear Pit gives it gravitas. It is, of course a fiction, but I love the care that MacLean takes over the real history of the time.
The Bear Pit is an atmospheric tale of dark and perilous times. The ending is truly wicked!
Paul Burke 5/5
The Bear Pit by S.G. MacLean
Quercus 9781787473577 hbk Jul 2019