It's 1666 and the Great Fire has just decimated an already plague-ridden London. Lady's maid Lucy Campion, along with pretty much everyone else left standing, is doing her part to help the city clean up and recover. But their efforts come to a standstill when a couple of local boys stumble across a dead body that should have been burned up in the fire but miraculously remained intactthe body of a man who died not from the plague or the fire, but from the knife plunged into his chest.
Searching for a purpose now that there's no lady in the magistrate's household for her to wait on, Lucy has apprenticed herself to a printmaker. But she can't help but use her free time to help the local constable, and she quickly finds herself embroiled in the murder investigation. It will take all of her wits and charm, not to mention a strong stomach and a will of steel, if Lucy hopes to make it through alive herself.
With From the Charred Remains, Susanna Calkins delivers another atmospheric historical mystery that will enchant readers with its feisty heroine and richly detailed depiction of life in Restoration England.
About the Author
SUSANNA CALKINS became fascinated with seventeenth-century England while pursuing her doctorate in British history and uses her fiction to explore this chaotic period. Originally from Philadelphia, Calkins now lives outside of Chicago with her husband and two sons. From the Charred Remains is her second novel.
Read an Excerpt
From the Charred Remains
By Susanna Calkins
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Susanna Calkins
All rights reserved.
At the clanging of the swords, Lucy's stomach lurched and her hands tightened on her rake. The sound still made her cringe, even all these years after Cromwell's war.
No soldiers now, but two boys garbed as knights, pitching at each other with heavy swords, their underdeveloped bodies encumbered by breastplates and armor made for men. Lucy watched the boys play for a moment, as they slid about in the rubble — the aftermath of the Great Fire — trying to stay atop the mountains of debris that once comprised London's bustling Fleet Street.
Barely a fortnight had passed since the Great Fire of 1666 had devastated London in the three days between September 2 and September 5, leaving a sprawling, still smoldering, wasteland. Ludgate, Cheapside, St. Paul's — all unrecognizable. Where dwellings had once pressed in on each other, like old women clinging together in market, now all was leveled. The moment one medieval structure had fallen nearly all had collapsed, as the centuries-old timber could not withstand the mighty blaze. Here and there, a few structures remained. St. Giles-Without-Cripplegate. St. Katherine Cree. London Bridge. The Tower. Perhaps licked by flames, but not destroyed.
Lucy had heard that, by King Charles's reckoning, more than thirteen thousand homes, churches, and shops had been destroyed, leaving thousands of people without shelter or livelihoods. The real miracle was that scarcely few had perished outright, even though Lucy herself had nearly died in the early hours of the blaze. Everyone had missing neighbors though, people who'd not returned, so the death toll might still grow.
And the Fire was still not yet quenched, despite the unceasing fire brigade. In their panic, when the Fire had first started, Londoners had dug into the network of elm pipes that lay under the streets, to get at the water pumped in from the Thames. With so many punctures, the pipes did not work as they ought, and the water had ceased to flow. The horses and the pumps could not get through the narrow streets, particularly as they grew more jammed as people tried desperately to flee with as many belongings as they could carry in small carts and on their backs.
Even now, buckets of water drawn from the nearby Thames were still being passed hand to hand, from soldier to butcher to child to soap-seller, throughout the day and night, as they had been since the wind had changed on the third day and the fire had at last begun to subside. The smell of smoke still hung heavily in the air, stinging Lucy's eyes and nose, and making her petticoats and bonnet reek.
Like hundreds of other Londoners, Lucy had been pressed into service by the King and the City government to help clear away the rubble, for a few pence a day. It was a far cry from what her life had been like up until the Fire had broken out. For the last few years, she'd been serving as a chambermaid in the household of Master Hargrave, a local magistrate, who spent many hours presiding over the assizes and other court sessions.
Well, no longer a chambermaid exactly, she reminded herself. Lucy had risen to be a lady's maid, excepting now there was no longer any lady in the household for her to serve. Mistress Hargrave, bless her soul, had been taken by the plague last summer, and the magistrate's only daughter, Sarah, had turned Quaker, traveling to distant lands. Since then, the master, a good and kindly man, had kept Lucy in his employ.
Truth be told, there was no clear place for Lucy in the household. Annie was the chambermaid now, having taken on Lucy's old scullery duties, emptying chamber pots, laundering clothes, and keeping the house tidy. Cook prepared the small family's meals, while her husband, John, tended to the needs of the magistrate and his son. Lucy did what she could, helping Cook and John keep the household running with godly order. But the knowledge that she had no clear place in the household remained heavy on her thoughts.
Clinging to order was all they could do — or so it seemed — in this world gone mad. The lawlessness and looting, rampant even before the Fire, when the great plague of the preceding two years had torn social and familial ties apart, threatened to grow worse. During the plague, many servants who had survived their masters had simply seized what they could. Some took just food or trifles, others new clothes or more luxurious items, but many had taken everything, in a quest to start their lives anew. They stole their masters' carts, horses, homes, livelihoods, and, in some cases, even their titles. In an instant, barmaids could become fine ladies, apprentices could become masters, with no one the wiser. Most seemed to have gotten away with these deeds too. Some areas of the city had been so hard hit by the plague that there were few left alive who could gainsay these usurpers' outrageous claims. No gossiping neighbors, no knowledgeable parishioners, no bellmen keeping careful watch. The ties of community that had so long bound Londoners to order and authority had been shattered when the plague was at its height. Only after the members of government had returned to the city had communal order and authority slowly been restored.
Yet with the Fire the world, once again, seemed completely askew. As before, people were quick to take what did not belong to them and to seek a new place in society. The ponderous thefts that had occurred during the plague had only been worsened by the Fire. Property records, wills, legal testaments, and other such documents had been swallowed by the flames, leaving many properties, trades, and livelihoods in dispute, opening the door even wider to looters and squatters.
Although Lucy would never have betrayed the Hargraves in such a base way, as so many servants she knew had done to their masters, there was something about the way these thieves had liberated themselves that she admired. The apprentices who had taken over their masters' shops, and the servants who were now sleeping in their masters' beds, had seized the opportunity to bury their old identities and livelihoods deep within the ashes, and to craft new lives for themselves.
For now, Lucy was just grateful that her family and most of the Hargraves had survived the plague and the Fire, although that survival had not come without cost. The chaos, the suffering, the aftermath of both events were still the stuff of nightmares.
Perhaps the prophets and soothsayers were right, Lucy thought. Maybe 1666 was the devil's year, as so many people fearfully whispered. Surely a judgment was being passed by the Lord.
Yet even as the thought occurred to her, Lucy pushed it out of her head. "Fantastical stuff," she could almost hear the magistrate say. "Utter foolishness. I'm surprised at you, Lucy."
Lucy returned to the tedious work before her. Rake. Scoop. Bucket. The men would first dismantle and carry away the fallen beams, and then remove the remains of furniture, doors, shutters, and other large materials. It was up to the women then to fill sacks and pails with debris, and empty them into the waiting carts. From there, the carts would dump everything into the Thames. Buckets of water coming up to cool the embers, buckets of debris going back.
The clanging sound of the boys started up again. "Stole that armor, I'd wager," said the young woman at her side, commenting on the antics of the two boy knights. "Don't you suppose, Lucy?"
Lucy glanced at Annie. As the magistrate's chambermaid, Annie was certainly growing up, no longer the gawky scrawny girl she'd been when Lucy found her on the streets of London two years before. Though still small, her arms and cheeks were round now, and her smile was no longer so sad.
"I don't know," Lucy shrugged. The armor donned by the boys had likely come from a church, a family monument perhaps. Who could know? The Fire had disturbed as much as it had secreted and destroyed. "Maybe."
Certainly, the Fire had been fickle, incinerating some objects while gently charring others. As she and Annie had raked through the rubble over the last few days, they had seen many things surface, giving little hints about the people who may have lived and worked there. A bed frame, a spinet, children's toys, fragments of clothes, some tools, a dipper, some buckets, a laundry tub, a few knives, all a jumble of life and humanity. They had even uncovered a pianoforte. With one finger, Annie had tapped on one of the grimy ivory keys, and Lucy had winced at the discordant jangling sound that had emerged from the once precious piece.
Here and there they found bits of treasure too. A silver mirror, blackened and peeling. Some gold coins, blackened and distorted from the flames. All those involved with the shoveling and the raking had been warned not to pocket any items they found. Strict laws against looters had been passed and the King's soldiers monitored the ruins to ensure that merchants, landowners, and tenants did not lose their property or their rights. For her part, Lucy wanted nothing from the Fire, seeing that it had only brought misery, despair, and chaos.
Meanwhile, the two boys were still playing, oblivious to all that was going on around them. The helmet of one boy had slipped over his eyes. "I'll slick you to bits, Sir Dungheap," he called to his friend, his voice somewhat muffled under the heavy iron mask. They heard him make a wretching sound. "Hey, this thing stinks!"
"Not so fast, Lord Lughead," Sir Dungheap retorted. "First, you shall have a taste of my sword." The other boy struggled to lift the sword, but only succeeded in toppling them both over, a great mash of arms, legs, and rusty armor.
Although Lucy was hot, tired, and greatly in want of an ale, a smile tugged at her lips. Clearing the rubble was backbreaking work, but it had already brought in a few extra shillings that she and her brother could sorely use. Besides, there was a funny sort of camaraderie that had arisen among the group she was with, some friendly jesting and singing had helped pass the long hours. Most people blamed the Catholics for the Fire. Papists, they called them. This notion united them a bit as they labored, even though by some accounts the inferno had started on Pudding Lane when a baker had failed to douse his ovens before his slumber.
Others hysterically claimed that the French had set London ablaze. Even before the Fire, it was customary to mock and jeer the French. After all, King Charles had been at war with France for a number of months now. Why they were at war, Lucy could not really say. She thought it had something to do with the Dutch and shipping routes, but was otherwise in the dark. At first, when the war was going well, the French were just the source of many tavern jests. Who hadn't laughed at the French "dancing men," who dared fight the valiant English soldiers? Who hadn't heard the tale of the French sailors who had looked down the barrel of a cannon to see if the gunpowder had been lit? As the war dragged on though, and the English began to suffer actual damages, the mood toward the French had grown steadily more poisonous. In the weeks leading up to the Fire, rumors abounded about Frenchmen plotting to blow up Parliament, just as Guy Fawkes had tried to do some sixty years before.
Since the Fire, though, all foreigners but especially the French were looked at with heavy suspicious eyes. As rumors worsened, Lucy knew that at least a few French merchants had fled London with their families for fear of a mob being set upon them. Just yesterday, they'd heard of a Frenchman in Smithfield being run out of London with a pitchfork.
But it wasn't just the French or the Catholics who were being blamed. A lot of griping, though, and surly words were being directed toward the King himself. No matter that the monarch had helped fight the flames with his own hands, many Londoners were still quick to claim that King Charles had not done enough to help the survivors. Last Thursday, the monarch had stood at Moorfields to declare that the Fire had been an act of nature. "Not foreign powers!" he had proclaimed. "Not subversives! Not the Catholics! Not even our enemies across the Channel. An act of God!"
This pleased the soothsayers and almanac-makers to no end, of course, particularly as people began to buy their books and seek more hidden prophecies. Still, most people were not convinced. "Looking for a scapegoat, they are," the magistrate had told her. "I can tell you, Lucy, this worries me." She remembered how last year, when the full-blown plague had finally descended on London, Master Hargrave had called his servants together. "If ever you see a mob forming, you run the other way!" he had warned them. "Bad things happen when a crowd takes leave of its senses." The same was surely true in these tense days.
Thinking of the magistrate's kindness, Lucy smiled. She could never put into words the fortune she had received when entering service in Master Hargrave's household. Not only was he a just and godly man, but he was not one to diminish an idea simply because it came from a servant. As she learned later, he had not minded that she secretly listened to his daughter's tutors, so long as she had polished, chopped, swept, and laundered as she ought. When he would read texts to the members of the family, fulfilling his moral duty as the head of the household, he would allow her to ask questions. He was only required to read them the Bible to assure the salving of his conscience, but over time he began to read from other texts he enjoyed — Locke, Hobbes, and the like. Even Shakespeare, since the ban against frivolity had been lifted by the King six years before.
How shocked his son, Adam, had been, when he first returned to his father's household upon completing his legal studies in law at the Inns of Court. Not only that his father would question his chambermaid about some fairly difficult pieces, but, as he told Lucy a long time later, he was deeply struck by her ability to answer his father's questions in a lively and imaginative way.
Thinking of Adam now, Lucy bit her lip. For so long, there had been nothing between them. Like his father, Adam had always treated her respectfully, not being a man to abuse or force himself upon his servants, as so many men of their station were wont to do. He'd always been courteous, but generally aloof, seemingly paying her little mind. From time to time, though, they had shared curious fluttering exchanges that had revealed that she was in his thoughts, but she did not know what to make of it.
Then, when the family was beset by several tragedies over the last year, including the death of her mistress, Adam's mother, something between them all had begun to change. To the magistrate, Lucy had become something like a daughter. To the magistrate's daughter, she had become a sister. To Adam, well, she became something more dear, although for the longest time, as she recently learned, he had struggled with his feelings for a servant. Social convention claimed that there could be no honorable match between gentry and servant, and she knew he had not wished to dishonor her.
The night of the Fire though, Adam had seemed to cast convention aside. She shivered, remembering his fervent promises. Even in the immediate aftermath, their future together, not quite stated, had seemed possible. But what would that future be like, she couldn't help wonder. Would she be accepted by Adam's peers? Certainly not by those who knew her to have been a chambermaid. Would such a poor match hurt Adam's career? And more insidiously, a little voice whispered inside her, did she even want to get married? The world of dawning opportunities beckoned. Marriage, children — could they wait? The magistrate had told her once how much he had admired several of the petticoat authors, women who had dared take up a pen and promote their own views. Had he been suggesting something to her? She could not be sure.
With a slight sigh, Lucy remembered her last conversation with Adam, a week ago, in the magistrate's kitchen. He'd been pressed by the Lord Mayor to help survey the wreckage and assess the scope of the property claims, and had barely slept or eaten for three days. Sitting at the bench, resting his head on his fist, Lucy had never seen him so overwhelmed and distracted. The disaster that had befallen the City was clearly taking his toll.
Excerpted from From the Charred Remains by Susanna Calkins. Copyright © 2014 Susanna Calkins. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A great read; even better than the first Lucy Campion book! I can't wait for the next installment. The mystery was very intricate and riveting. The historical setting came to life. A real page turner until the end. Any mystery fan and/or historical fiction fan will thoroughly enjoy this book.
Lucy Campion stumbles upon a grisly scene in the aftermath of the Great London Fire of 1666. A corpse has been discovered amid the rubble, strangely preserved, with a knife sticking out of its chest. When a bag of miscellaneous items turns up next to the corpse, Lucy's natural curiosity kicks in, and she can't resist using her connections and wit to assist Constable Duncan in solving this mystery. I liked this one well enough to go back and read the first in the series, and I look forward to more to come.
I thoroughly enjoyed the second in the Lucy Campion series. The premise was fun and engaging and I liked seeing how the characters developed. Perhaps most enjoyable was the puzzle at the heart of the mystery. So much fun to think about.
I thoroughly enjoyed this second Lucy Campion story. It picks up where the first book left off - immediately after the 1666 fire of London. (Note: you absolutely do NOT need to have read the first to enjoy this new story.) I loved the unique idea of using a poem to assist and inspire Lucy to solve the identity of the murder victim discovered in the early part of the book. There is so much going on in Lucy's life - and it's a joy to see her grow and evolve throughout this book. I now must move on to book 3 in the series. I love these books! I find they grab my attention from the very first word and keep my undivided attention to the very last page.