“One for aficionados of Georgian historical fiction” – The Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass

IMG_13Oct2021at111552The Black Drop places us in London in 1794. The Revolutionary Wars, pitting France against Great Britain, Austria, the Holy Roman Empire, Prussia and Russia have been raging for two years and nerves around their politics are tense. Laurence Jago, an ambitious clerk at the Foreign Office, has secrets that could lead to him being arrested for treason. When a highly sensitive letter is leaked to the press which is likely to be a blow to the war effort of the British Army, Jago becomes an accidental suspect. Here, Sir James Burges, the Whig Under-Secretary of State in the Foreign Office contemplates the letter’s implications:

“A secret paper from Downing Street, received from hands unknown, makes grave reading. We learn that the army is separated, divided by the Scheldt, and the only plan our illustrious Duke can contrive is ignominious flight to Ostend. God send our forces speed, but God also send them better commanders.”

Then Jago discovers the body of another clerk, William Benson. Through unknown means the blame is shifted onto the dead man, but Jago knows the clerk is not guilty of the alleged leak. Not only does he need to find the culprit who killed Benson, but he has to prove his own innocence and the clock is ticking. There are plenty within the Government who wish to see Jago hanged. Jago is left to reflect on an MP he believes might be responsible for Benson’s death:

“The message had reached the Observer only the day before it was published and that was a full ten days after I found Will hanging. George Canning [the PM’s protégé in No.10] was Pitt’s favourite and if the Ministry believed he had made an honest mistake it seemed they were willing to protect him by overlooking inconvenient facts.”

And, as Jago’s suspicions of Canning’s involvement intensify, he muses on a second mysterious murder, that of an innocent museum employee:

“Canning had been missing for two weeks! It could be either a certain alibi against any part of Grant’s death or positive proof he had been the murderer and had taken steps to lose himself in London around the time it occurred. Only proof would show the truth. Memoranda flew around Downing Street every day and surely one written in Canning’s hand would be easy to find.”

Narrated in the first person, the novel represents the written confession of Laurence Jago. A flawed individual, he is impulsive, rushing headlong into danger and is apt to open his mouth when it would be better if he kept quiet. Suffering many sleepless nights he tries first to ease them with a mild sedative. That is until an apothecary tells him that what he is taking is meant for children and recommends Laudanum, which he calls the Black Drop. Over time, as the novel’s plot becomes ever more entangled and Jago gets himself into an increasingly precarious situation that is partly of his own making, he descends into full-scale addiction.

When Aglantine, an old crone and Jacobin spy Jago has reluctantly befriended, persuades him to help her stage an untrue rumour of an imminent attempt on the King’s life by poisoned arrow, Jago agrees, believing it might help to uncover the truth about who killed both Benson and Grant and perhaps also framed Jago himself for leaking the letter in the first place. There is a hearing at which members of the secret society, alleged to have committed the murders, are questioned and Jago is present. Here he describes the occasion:

“The deep shadows of the building and the guttering flames of the fire in the grate made it feel as though we were transported back to Tudor times, and Canning some kind of ruthless Thomas Cromwell type. When they took Lemaitre away, Canning turned to look at me measuringly and I arranged my face into indifference.”

The Black Drop is a well-researched, novel. Nattrass vividly depicts the stuffy ambience in the offices of Whitehall and Downing Street and offsets it against the seediness, smells and filth of London’s back streets and a rural, pre-industrial England. Underneath all the political intrigue this is a murder mystery. Jago just wants to know who killed his colleague and convince others that it wasn’t suicide. He also wants to extricate himself from the suspicion of leaking the secret letter. What he discovers in the course of his investigations is the involvement of members within the highest echelons of the British Government who each attempt to frame others for their part in the plot to murder innocent people.

There are a lot of characters to get one’s head around. The author lists thirty of them — both actual historical figures and fictional ones — under six subsections at the front of her novel, including Jago’s dog. Some feature more prominently than others. This is not really as helpful as it sounds. Each having an agenda or motive of their own, frequently diverts attention from Jago’s own story. There are, in addition, a handful of other characters who don’t make it onto Nattrass’ lists, such as the members of the secret society which Jago, at the behest of his boss, George Aust, the Foreign Office’s Permanent Under Secretary, attends on a number of occasions. Some of the latter play a role in the last third of the novel during the hearing to uncover the spoof plot against the King mentioned earlier. Already a thrilling yarn in itself, Nattrass could, arguably, have made it an even tighter narrative with fewer characters.

Any Cop?: The Black Drop shows the British Government of the late eighteenth century in all its grubbiness, its privileges, struggles for power and spy rings. One for aficionados of Georgian historical fiction.

Carola Huttmann

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