Blood on the Stone by Jake Lynch (Unbound)
We first meet our protagonist – Luke Sandys – as he’s carrying out his Bailiff duties in the city – collecting licences from tavern owners, arranging security at The Bodleian – getting everything in order before King Charles and his entourage arrive for Parliament. Though being a Bailiff is not a full time job we see Sandys takes his work seriously; his deputy – Robshaw – has been to his brewery job already. has been paid in ale and is probably drunk. In the first few pages Jake Lynch brilliantly establishes the classic detective story relationship in just a few lines – the inspector and his sergeant; professional yet also personal, they care about each other. Luke is a clever man, a graduate schooled in the new scientific method – though not ‘a gentleman’, being the son of a carpenter; Robshaw a working man, easy with the townspeople, may seem a little rough round the edges but knows what he’s doing (I can’t help but think of Morse and Lewis, who still bring the tourists to Oxford!). Well, I knew we were in good hands straight away…
The intrigue starts almost immediately – there is a political meeting going on at The Unicorn & Jacob’s Well – the tavern owner owes his fee, so Luke visits, and becomes embroiled in events himself. The atmosphere in the city is charged; it is only 30 years since the Civil War ended and there are constant rumours of a Catholic plot to take the throne. Oxford’s Catholics – including Luke’s friend Cate and her family – have been living quite peacefully in the city, but now people are coming in stirring up trouble. In uncertain times there are always those who look to take advantage – splinter groups, zealots and factions vying for attention and power (doesn’t that sound familiar?). Luke finds himself in the middle of this intrigue – professionally as well as personally. As the plot thickened I as a reader certainly felt the sense of danger in the air, I feared something truly awful could happen. Lynch builds this tension brilliantly, often writing from more than one point of view. I did my best to solve the mystery before Luke (that’s the point of a detective story after all!) but didn’t succeed – I’m not about to spoil the mystery for you here either.
This is a character heavy story – town and gown, the army, court and parliament, and the country folk we meet in the prologue all have huge parts to play – no-one is superfluous. I can’t imagine how the author kept in control of all these people as he wrote – they really do seem to have lives of their own and are all completely believable. Luke and Cate’s relationship is not exactly easy, nor can it be and Lynch puts this across beautifully. The ‘bad guys’ are as complicated as the one’s we’re rooting for – no one dimensional villains here, though some are absolutely horrible, with others you may even begin to try see their side. I must pick out the scenes with the two clerical ‘Bobs’ who come up with parliament, and help with the case – putting humour into this story really lifts it, and Lynch manages it subtly, without making them stock ‘comedy characters’.
Oxford itself is one of the star characters of this tale. If you live or work in the city (as I do) you can start to take it for granted. We complain constantly about the street layout and the crowds of tourists (this city was not built for a 20th century transport system and all the residents and visitors they have to cope with, but that’s a whole other subject!) but of course we all love it really; it’s great city to wander in. Blood on the Stone may be fiction, but walking round the city with this book in hand, alongside Luke, Robshaw, Cate is still completely possible. One of my favourite times to see Oxford is early in the morning, on a summer day, before it gets really busy. If you stand and are still for a while – maybe somewhere like Oriel Street or Radcliffe Square – I think you can really get a feel for all the past lives lived here – a past Jake Lynch has conjured so well in this novel.
I read quite a lot in this genre – I think Luke Sandys completely stands alongside the likes of Brother Cadfael, Thomas Shardlake, Matthew Bartholomew and Huw Cullen (I’m sure there are more!) as a welcome addition to the “historical detective club”, and I do hope he returns with more mysteries to solve.
About the author: Jake Lynch is Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney, and the author of seven booksand over 50 refereed articles and book chapters. Over 20 years, he has pioneered both research and practice inthe field of Peace Journalism, for which he was recognised with the 2017 Luxembourg Peace Prize, awarded bythe Schengen Peace Foundation.
Thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours and to Unbound for the review copy of the book. Why not go and see what my fellow blog tourers thought of this book? Here they all are: