Book review by Christopher Ryland.
Summer, 1643: England is at war with itself. King Charles I has fled London, his negotiations with Parliament in tatters. The country is consumed by bloodshed.
For Thomas Hill, a man of letters quietly running a bookshop in the rural town of Romsey, knowledge of the war is limited to the rumours that reach the local inn.
When a stranger knocks on his door one night and informs him that the king’s cryptographer has died, everything changes. Aware of Thomas’s background as a mathematician and his expertise in codes and ciphers, the king has summoned him to his court in Oxford.
On arrival, Thomas soon discovers that nothing at court is straightforward. There is evidence of a traitor in their midst. Brutal murder follows brutal murder. And when a vital message encrypted with a notoriously unbreakable cipher is intercepted, he must decipher it to reveal the king’s betrayer and prevent the violent death that defeat will surely bring.
As an American, I must admit I’ve never had a particular interest in or knowledge of the details of the English Civil Wars of the 17th century. I did study the era in college, especially the wonderful literature, where I learned about the politics as an important aspect of the literature. But unlike the American Civil War, where the personalities and battles and generals (and even lesser officers) are of the utmost importance, Americans tend to treat the English Civil Wars are treated as little more than an ellipsis between Elizabethan England and the transformative periods leading up to the Glorious Revolution. On the one hand, this may be confusion stemming from a typically American embrace of both royalist and anti-tyrannical tendencies. But on the other, perhaps it’s because both sides seem rather rotten.
Thomas Hill, the hero of Andrew Swanston’s new historical thriller, The King’s Spy, shares a similar outlook. An Oxford graduate and amateur philosopher and mathematician, Hill lives the quiet life of a bookseller in the formerly sleepy English town of Romsey. “Formerly” sleepy, because as the narrative opens in August 1643, the town has become overrun by drunken royalist dragoons. Hill, while not sympathetic to the Parliamentarian rebellion, considers himself something of a pacifist and thus not loyal to the king’s cause either, at least not in war. A bachelor as well, he lives with his war-widow sister and her children, with his primary hobby that of encrypting and decrypting secret messages through the post with his old Oxford tutor. An unimposing life, at the very least, until a mysterious friar arrives with an equally mysterious offer to serve as the king’s cryptographer.
Predictably, Thomas Hill agrees to return to Oxford to join the king’s service, under the rationalization that perhaps his work will help to bring this senseless war to a faster end. But once in Oxford, Hill meets with old friends and new enemies, and he must negotiate the strange courtly politics in a transformed university town that scarcely resembles the Oxford he knew as a student. Hill’s tutor, Abraham Fletcher, and the queen’s friar, Simon de Pointz, are his only trusted allies in a treacherous new environment. This environment, while in many ways a rollicking bit of background color (quite a few poxed prostitutes, drunken soldiers, and rivers of filth), also provides that insight into the “civil” aspect of these wars that, as an American, I’ve rarely encountered.
Despite the larger context, though, it is Hill’s job as cryptographer that quickly dominates the narrative. Like all wartime leaders, King Charles needs to communicate secretly with his lieutenants as well as interdict his enemies’ encoded communications. But while most of these messages consist of mundane information, it’s the discovery of an apparently unbreakable cipher that forces Hill to race against time to solve a murder and perhaps the fate of the kingdom (a delightful bit of historical irony, there).
And, indeed, the cryptology itself nearly overtakes the whole narrative. Because the English royal army requires different ciphers for different purposes, Hill exhibits a virtuosity both for the task and for explaining to his friends (and thus the reader) the multiple ingenious but simple methods of creating and decrypting secret ciphers. Without these lessons in cryptography, the reader would be lost, yet these chapters are, surprisingly, among the most compelling. And when Hill begins to work on the infamous “Vigenere square,” the audience is not left too far behind. Nonetheless, Thomas Hill is not just a great brain, merely forever solving puzzles and moralizing on the corruption and hypocrisy of wartime politics (his favorite philosopher being Michel de Montaigne). To the contrary, he is also an expert gambler, an accomplished boxer, an above average sprinter, a devoted family man, not to mention being no slouch at wooing the fair sex.
In the end then, The King’s Spy is a wonderfully entertaining appeal both to the intellectual and pulpy instincts of its audience. If at times Thomas Hill veers dangerously toward a caricature of a male fantasy hero (Hill’s repertoire of fortuitously useful skill seems unlimited), a 17th century pacifist philosopher Travis McGee is probably not such a bad thing. In that vein, the book’s biggest flaw is probably nothing more than the occasionally forced structure of a nascent mystery series that needs to keep itself open to further development. But if at times the reader knows what’s coming, the content of the next Thomas Hill mystery is also unpredictable. Will the rest of the series be all about cryptography, or will Swanston continue to develop Hill’s analytical talents volume by volume? Either way, if The King’s Spy is any indication, the next Thomas Hill novel is something to look forward to.