Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: John Grey #1
Published by Felony & Mayhem on May 7th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
Two-time Edgar nominee LC Tyler is best known for his series featuring Ethelred and Elsie a third-rate novelist and his gloriously vulgar agent, respectively. And so he should be: He s twice won Britain s Last Laugh award for the Best Humorous Mystery of the Year. But with A Cruel Necessity, the first in the John Grey series, Tyler takes a sharp turn into the shadows. There are still some chuckles to be had, but not many: This is England in the year 1657, Oliver Cromwell is in power, and joy has essentially been outlawed. A young lawyer with a taste for beer and pretty women, Grey finds pleasures enough, even in this backwater Essex town, but he d be wise to keep his amusement to himself: A Royalist spy has been found dead in a local ditch, and Cromwell s agents are eager distressingly eager to explain to Grey that this is nothing to laugh about."
I picked this one up out of simple curiosity – it refers to itself as the “first” John Grey historical mystery, and that caught my attention. Because Diana Gabaldon has written a series of historical mysteries featuring Lord John Grey from her Outlander series, set a century after this John Grey. I wondered how they compared.
While Lord John Grey, by the time we meet him in Outlander, is a bit older and a whole lot cannier than John Grey, erstwhile lawyer, they do have one thing in common. And it is something they have in common with many historical mysteries, starting with Brother Cadfael, set in the 1100s and often considered the progenitor of the current popularity of historical mysteries.
All of these series are set at times of great political upheaval. In Brother Cadfael’s time, England was in the midst of a civil war. Lord John Grey, in the 1740s and onwards, faces the Jacobite rebellion and the run up to the American Revolution.
John Grey, the hero, and sometimes dupe of Tyler’s series, lives in the middle of an equally disruptive political upheaval in the late 1650s. In a way, the issues that swirl around him tie into Lord John Grey and the time of the not-too-distant American Revolution. One of the things that made the American experiment singular at its inception was that the nascent Republic created a method for the peaceful transfer of power.
In John Grey’s 1657, that concept only existed in one form, “the King is dead, long live the King.” Other than in a monarchy, there was no other way to go about it. And not all of those transfers were particularly peaceful. In 1657, Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate was coming to its inevitable end. Not because there was anything particularly wrong happening, at least not in light of its time, but because the rise and continuation of the Protectorate was focused solely on the life of its creator and Protector, Oliver Cromwell. And no man lives forever.
Cromwell was 50 when the Protectorate was established, and by the opening days of A Cruel Necessity, nearing 60. People on both sides, Royalist and Roundhead, were looking to the future. If Cromwell attempted to pass the Protectorate to his own son, he would be establishing a monarchy, no better than the one he deposed. And possibly worse. Richard Cromwell wasn’t half the man his father was. Possibly not even a quarter.
Granting the Protectorate to one of his generals would set up a military dictatorship – also not a desirable option. No country can afford to be at war forever.
People were starting to look at the third option – invite the son of their deposed and beheaded King back to England to pick up the reins of monarchy, and reign England. And it is A Cruel Necessity indeed that many people were trying to keep a foot in both camps, in the hope of saving their families if not themselves from economic ruin and a traitor’s death.
Poor John Grey, back home after a year at Cambridge studying law, is trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life. And he’s just a little too honest, and more than a bit too easily fooled, for the villagers to trust him with any of the things that they are doing to deal with that onrushing but uncertain future.
So John keeps trying to do the right thing, even if he can’t figure out what that right thing is, or what might be the best way might be. And even though he can’t seem to see that everyone around him is lying through whatever teeth they have left.
And so is he.
Escape Rating B: In the end, I liked this story, but not for the things I usually expect in a historical mystery.
One of the things that I liked a lot was the way that the historical period and its messes played into the mystery. In another time and place, these events simply wouldn’t have happened. But it helped that I already knew the outlines of this history. I have had a lifelong fascination with English history, even though none of my ancestors came from anywhere near there. And while the period I studied centered on the Tudors, I did dip my toes into both the Plantagenets and the Stuarts. The Protectorate bit a chunk out of the Stuart period.
Which is why the review began with a history lesson. I’m not sure how this book will work for readers with no interest or familiarity in the period. I found all the period details absolutely fascinating, but I wonder if some readers will just get lost in them.
Usually in a historical mystery, particularly in a series, it works better if the reader likes and empathizes with the main character. This John Grey is a bit a puzzle in that regard. He’s likable enough, but he’s also a very great fool. Or simply greatly foolish a great deal of the time. Or perhaps completely socially unaware might be a better description. It’s not just that he spends the book being deceived by absolutely everyone, it’s that he falls into the trap, over and over, so very easily. And so very often.
It’s going to be interesting to see how Grey grows up. If Grey grows up. I know that there is a saying that G-d looks out for fools, but if that’s true, then John Grey is probably keeping him a bit busier than he should be.