Past Tense

The Clerkenwell of old has inspired plenty of contemporary authors, who are using our neighbourhood as a setting for gripping stories that portray local life during the Great Fire, the Victorian age and evolving post-war society. We find mist and mystery in five new historical thrillers.

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor (HarperCollins)

IT’S 350 years since the Great Fire of London. Andrew Taylor’s atmospheric novel, set in 1666, is a timely tale about a body found in the ashes of St Paul’s with a stab wound to the neck. Taylor – three times winner of the Historical Dagger award – is no stranger to Clerkenwell. Bleeding Heart Square is his Thirties mystery set around Bleeding Heart Yard (novelists often alter names). He returns to the area for The Ashes of London, which describes the “murky orange fog” of the fire and refugees “flooding into the unburned suburbs, to Houndsditch and the Charterhouse, to West Smithfield and Clerkenwell, and even to Hatton Garden”. Out 7 April

Freya by Anthony Quinn (Jonathan Cape)
Loosely a sequel to Curtain Call, a hit literary thriller set in 1930s theatreland, Freya begins on VE Day in London in 1945. Freya Wyley is an ambitious, outspoken young woman who ventures into the male-dominated world of newspapers. Her life is also complicated by a love triangle while studying at Oxford. As a journalist in Fleet Street, she has to contend with male chauvinism while taking advantage of the post-war opportunities for women. The changing city is the evocative backdrop to the novel’s human and political drama. At one point Freya wanders into a “small pocket of secret London”, through an open gate offering access to Lincoln’s Inn. Out now

A Death Along the River Fleet by Susanna Calkins (Minotaur)
The author of this novel is based in Chicago, though she’s obsessed with 17th century England. The latest book in her mystery series begins with Lucy Campion, a lady’s maid turned printer’s apprentice, crossing Holborn Bridge one early morning in April 1667 when a distressed woman in a blood- spattered nightdress emerges from the mist. She’s also suffering memory loss, but with Lucy’s help they reconstruct the terrible events that led to this nobleman’s daughter crossing the vilest portion of the River Fleet. During her research, Calkins says she became fascinated by the Fleet (aren’t we all?) and the surrounding area of Smithfield and Fleet Ditch. Out 12 April

The Secrets of Gaslight Lane by M. R. C. Kasasian (Head of Zeus)
This is the fourth book in the Gower Street Detective series set in fog-shrouded London in the 1880s – but don’t worry, you’ve got a few months to catch up before it’s published. Sidney Grice is a little bored with life, so the curmudgeonly investigator is delighted when a murder case comes along, especially as there’s a link to an earlier unsolved crime at the same house in Burton Crescent. The address, near Gray’s Inn Road, is now called Cartwright Gardens. And there are more local connections: the books have a Clerkenwell publisher, the author’s represented by an EC1 agent and the series has been optioned for TV by a local production company. Out 2 June

Samuel Pepys and the Stolen Diary by M. J. Lee (Endeavour Press)
Here’s a playful historical thriller featuring Clerkenwell-born Samuel Pepys. The (fictional) plot involves a stolen diary that contains “unfortunate references” to royal shenanigans. The author clearly knows his 17th century subject and there are references (as in the real diary) to the temper of Pepys’s wife, Elizabeth, and his humble origins in Salisbury Court. Of course, there are local landmarks including Ludgate Hill and the College of Arms, near St Paul’s, as well as appearances by Nell Gwynn and poet John Dryden. It’s a witty reimagining of the life of the great diarist that climaxes with a frantic chase along the cobbled streets of Fleet Street. Out now (eBook)