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Unnatural Fire: Countess Ashby de la Zouche, #1

Unnatural Fire: Countess Ashby de la Zouche, #1

by Fidelis Morgan

It is the end of the 17th century, and the Countess Ashby de la Zouche is having rather a bad time. The money is long gone, along with the Count, and while the Countess has no mealy-mouthed scruples about renting out her person, fewer gentlemen than one might think appreciate the mellow, nuanced charms of a mature lady. In short, it's looking like a very hungry


It is the end of the 17th century, and the Countess Ashby de la Zouche is having rather a bad time. The money is long gone, along with the Count, and while the Countess has no mealy-mouthed scruples about renting out her person, fewer gentlemen than one might think appreciate the mellow, nuanced charms of a mature lady. In short, it's looking like a very hungry winter, until a new possibility arises: A job as a professional gossip columnist for one of London's daily tabloids. Peering into bedroom windows may not be the most respectable of occupations, but respectability loses a certain amount of its allure when the alternative is debtors' prison.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A lusty, audacious historical romp …all the bawdiness of 17th-century London is brought to life” — The Guardian [UK]

“Like a bawdy P.G. Wodehouse” — The Daily Mail [UK]

“A rollicking tale of alchemy, murder, and heaving bosoms, with a tantalizing sense of period” — Times of London

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
It is 1699, and the Countess Ashby de la Zouche, former mistress to Charles II, is now in her 60s and clearly past her prime. Finding herself in London's debtor's prison alongside the dregs of society, she finds one ray of light in the darkness: the young, lovely, and quite buxom Alpiew, a former devoted maidservant who was kidnapped by the Countess's ill-chosen former husband. Alpiew helps get the Countess out of jail, and the two, in financial dire straits, pair up to uncover salacious details for sale to the local scandal sheet. Shortly thereafter, the two ladies are hired to tail a husband suspected of adultery, and from Fleet Street to Covent Garden, they shadow their prey through the dank, tawdry streets of London. But their investigation takes an unanticipated turn when their prey winds up as "dead meat." As the Countess and Alpiew continue their detective work, the pile of bodies grows. A refreshingly original work that takes readers through the grimy streets of London at the turn of the 18th century, Unnatural Fire is sparked by the hand of a master. Fidelis Morgan, an adept screenwriter and ardent fan of both Restoration comedy and crime fiction, is clearly in her element with this brazen, hilarious tale of murder and mayhem. Not only will readers salivate while waiting for her next book, they will eagerly await the return of the detective duo of the Countess and Alpiew. (Spring 2001 Selection)
Independent (London)
A bodice romp through the 17th century underworld.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
British actress and playwright Morgan's (Hangover Square) love of Restoration comedy fires her first novel, a bawdy romp featuring a pair of unlikely female sleuths: the intrepid 60-year-old Lady Anastasia Ashby de la Zouche, who was once Charles II's mistress, and her former personal maid, the buxom, alluring Alpiew. Desperate for money, the countess and Alpiew join forces to write articles for a London scandal sheet, but get sidetracked following a well-to-do merchant, Beau Wilson, at the behest of his worried wife, who is suspicious of his long, unexplained absences from home. As they trail Beau around London's seedier districts, the countess and Alpiew attend a play or two as well as a lecture on the eclipse of the sun (due later that year of 1699), comment wittily on the state of the theater and scientific learning and eventually stumble on their quarry, his throat cut from ear to ear, one night in Covent Garden. Like a comic Restoration play, the action proceeds pell-mell, replete with bad puns and knockabout farce. The discovery of a secret "elaboratory" where Beau dabbled in the "hermetic arts" (alchemy), a fishing outing to the country, the murder of the Wilsons' loyal servant, Betty, and a cipher in alchemical symbols all lead in the end to a surprising plot involving King William himself. Fans of light historical mysteries are sure to be amused. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
The Guardian
A lusty audacious historical romp… ...A scintillating tale of murder and mayhem in 17th century London… Lusty, funny and gripping, this is one the best historical crime books in ages.--Maxim Jacubowski
Daily Mail
In Morgan’s hilarious 17th century romp, which combines an authentic slice of history with a tantalising storyline. An authority on the era, Morgan has created an inventive book which wears its learning lightly. Colourful turns of phrase and witty descriptions – like a bawdy P.G.Wodehouse leave you with a keen sense of the period. This is a frolicking good read.
Historical Novels Review
This is a fast moving story, well and economically told, with… a strong televisual quality. Amongst a wide range of lively and well realised characters, the comical Countess and her resourceful friend and maidservant Alpiew stand out. I can only hope we shall hear more of them.

Product Details

Felony & Mayhem, LLC
Publication date:
Countess Ashby De La Zouche Series , #1
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 7.40(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


The joining of two opposite components,
the subtle and the gross,
or the fixed and the volatile.

'Take this down..."At the stroke of 8 o'clock this morning, while the night-watch Charlies still slept in their boxes, the Honourable Marmaduke Smallwood tied a knot with tongue which he can never untie with his teeth. To whit, he married a common Covent Garden trollop, here, in the chapel of His Majesty's Prison of the Fleet..." Got it?'

Her patchy wig now askew and her heavily painted make-up starting to smear, Lady Anastasia Ashby de la Zouche, Baroness Penge, Countess of Clapham, thrust both her hands through the grille and gripped tight, the better to keep her place at the front of the heaving crowd.

At sixty years of age, her ladyship was in prison for debt. It was not the first time. She owed her druggist a mere trifle of six shillings, and the vile man had had the temerity to slap a writ on her.

It wasn't like this when Charles was king. But the darling man had been dead for fifteen years. And meanwhile Society had collapsed. Anybody could get on now. Merchants lorded it. A title meant next to nothing. English Society was ruined.

To make matters worse, a Dutchman was on the throne. A Dutchman! A midget to boot. King Charles was six foot four, but this nasty little flat-lander was all of five foot.

It was hard for the Countess to adjust to this new way of life, and impossible for her to take to this king. She, like most English people, detested the Dutch. After all the English had been at war with them for years. And now here was HerrVan Nincompoop, otherwise known as William of Orange, sitting on the English throne.

But as Society had changed, becoming more and more obsessed with money, profit and wealth, the Countess herself had been driven into the marketplace to survive.

Taking her cue from a number of successful women, she wrote for money.

She had had a play, a heroic tragedy entitled Love's Last Wind, performed at Lincoln's Inn Theatre. To save her embarrassment she had composed it under the nom de plume 'The Aetherial Amoret'. Despite an outstanding cast including Thomas Betterton, Elizabeth Barry and Anne Bracegirdle, it had closed on the fifth day. Her profits were nil.

''Twas run down by the sparks of the Town,' the Countess had explained to her friend the Duchesse de Pigalle, who was unable to attend the first performance due to a chincough, the second due to a quinsy, and subsequent performances were impossible because she had an attack of flatus and any other thing she could think of to escape the ordeal of sitting through two and a half hours of the Countess's rhymed verse.

'Young people!' the Countess elucidated. 'The brisk buffoonery and the false glittering of a youthful fancy will turn to ridicule our most delicate conversations.'

'Harrumph!' said Pigalle. 'So zat is zat! Now you know you can write a play, you need not to do it again.'

The Countess had taken the hint, given up all hopes of becoming the new Aphra Behn and turned instead to journalism. She plied her scurrilous little pieces of tittle-tattle, or blasts against quacks, or fashions, or new plays and sold them to whoever would buy.

As fortune fell, the day the debt collector thumped on her front door Lady Ashby de la Zouche happened to be between engagements, and her funds were exceedingly low.

'I bought the drugs because I was ill of an ague, don't you see?' she screamed at the bum-bailiffs who had been sent by the druggist to take her into custody. 'Is the man a simpleton that he thinks I can earn money when I am sick?'

One of the bum-bailiffs applied a hairy hand to her fore-arm. She brushed it off. 'When I am fit again, then I can pay him. But for the instant...'

At this moment the four gnarled arms of the bum-bailiffs picked her up and dumped her in the back of a cart bound for the Fleet Prison.

Hence her present confinement.

Now that she had been in prison a day and a night, she was undaunted by her surroundings, and did not appear at all troubled that she was rubbing shoulders with some of the dirtiest and smelliest people in London. She stood proudly confident of her superiority. Why, at one time she had been the mistress of a king.

Good old, dead old, Charles.

She cut a fine picture for a woman of her age. After all, most women of her age were dead. She was smartly dressed, her clothes of the finest fabrics, in the latest fashions of 1670. The only trouble was, it was now 1699.

'All of human life is here,' she exclaimed, wafting her chubby little hand at the turnkey when she was deposited at the prison door. 'Perfect writer's fodder.' She stepped daintily through the wicket gate. 'Let me drink in the atmosphere.'

She inhaled the stinking air (infused with foetid sweat and unwashed clothes; with rancid breath from hundreds of mouths full of rotting teeth; with rat droppings, and human excrement; with damp and rot and piss), then spent the whole night awake in the hope of finding a tit-bit juicy enough to expedite her instant release. Some aristocrat, maybe, confined for debt, or a well-known man of the cloth locked up for drunkenness or debauchery.

As chance would have it she was luckier than that.

Within the prison there was a chapel, a chapel which had different rules to the other chapels and churches of London. The ministers of this chapel were busy all the hours the law permitted them performing marriages for those who, for one reason or another, couldn't wait the tedious weeks required for licences and banns.

What People are Saying About This

Val McDermid
Fidelis Morgan’s tale of love and greed and alchemy in 1699 is a heady compound of wit, wisdom and wildness. It's an unsentimental warts-and-all portrait that reeks of authenticity, written with a brio that reflects the age--Val McDermid

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