Fire and Fountains

A Death At Fountains Abbey by Antonia Hodgson (Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99)

After escaping the confines of the Marshalsea prison, and cheating the gallows at Tyburn, Thomas ‘Half-Hanged’ Hawkins has left London, in the spring of 1718, for the open moors of Yorkshire. He’s been sent by the queen to recover a book of accounts the contents of which, if revealed, would be extremely embarrassing for an establishment caught up in the South Sea Bubble – the greatest swindle of the age.

The owner of the book is Sir John Aislabie, regarded as the architect of the scheme who, while claiming to be penniless, lives in enviably luxurious retirement near Fountains Abbey. The ruined investors of the South Sea Company are the least immediate of Aislabie’s problems, however, as someone his threatening to murder him and his household. Hawkins, aided by his deliciously nefarious ward Sam Fleet and his buxom bouncing handful of a ‘wife’ Kitty, must find the would-be killer before he can rescue the book for the queen.

It’s not easy to fit fiction around real historical characters without either showing off the extent of your research or assuming too much and wearing it too lightly. Antonia Hodgson, as in the previous two books in the series, gets it just right, conjuring up the rollicking eighteenth century and working it around a rip-roaring plot. It is almost possible to smell the spilled guts of the mutilated deer, the medications of the invalid Metcalf and the embers of the fire that kills Aislabie’s family in the opening chapter. The real life characters blend seamlessly with the fictitious and when the final twist comes, the reader teeters with Hawkins on the brink.

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