It is 1543 in London, and Henry VIII is distracted by many things. He is courting Katherine Parr, is planning an invasion of France and his health is failing. For the ordinary people around Southwark, surrounded by poverty and greed, living in crowded slums with illness and disease constant threats, life is about survival. Bianca Goddard, the daughter of a notorious alchemist, uses her knowledge of herbs and medicinal plants to make her living by making medicines. She sells her medicines to the poor in the Southwark slums.
Plague is a near constant threat in Tudor London, and can spread rapidly. When a merchant ship is quarantined, there are rumours. And when outbreaks of pestilence spread, there’s an urgent demand for rat poison. Bianca’s friend Jolyn seeks her assistance for painful abdominal cramps, and dies suddenly after drinking tea at Bianca’s. Not surprisingly, Bianca is accused of murder. While Bianca believes that someone was poisoning Jolyn, Constable Patch believes Bianca responsible. Can Bianca find out how Jolyn was killed, and by whom?
Bianca, with the aid of her boyfriend John and the colourful Meddybemps, tries to find the truth. Is Jolyn’s death connected to her work for Mrs Beldam at Barke House? And why are so many people after Jolyn’s lucky ring? Bianca needs to investigate carefully and quickly: Constable Patch is determined to bring her to justice. She suggests jealousy as a motive, to which Constable Patch replies:
‘Another lover’, Patch groaned. ‘How pedestrian.’
I had trouble imagining Patch actually saying ‘How pedestrian’, but that’s okay. There are a number of different threads, a few red herrings and a lot of rats in this story. Ms Lawrence depicts the squalor and the hardship well. I can hear the rats(!) and smell the waste. The setting is well described, the story moves at a quick pace and while some aspects are less believable than others, Bianca Goddard is an interesting character. I understand that this is the first novel in a series of mysteries, and I’ll be looking out for the next one.
Note: I was offered, and accepted, an electronic copy of this novel for review purposes.