The Seeker

By S.G. MacLean

Damian Seeker is a secret policeman, protecting Oliver Cromwell from various Royalist plots. When John Winter, one of Cromwell’s favourites, is murdered, the authorities believe Elias Ellingworth is the culprit, but Seeker is not so sure, and his investigation reveals all manner of secrets as he attempts to rescue Ellingworth from arbitrary justice and stop a daring assassination attempt on Cromwell himself.

It’s difficult to write a synopsis of The Seeker without giving the game away, but there are drug addicts, white slavers, Royalist plots, and war crimes all tangled together. Party fun for the whole family.

Seeker is an anti-anti-antihero (which probably makes him an antihero anyway). He works for the wrong people because history is against Cromwell and his religious fanatics, and Seeker’s reputation is one that instills fear in most people who cross his path. On the other hand, he’s quite determined to make sure that Elias Ellingworth isn’t executed for a crime he never committed, and he doesn’t mind bending reality out of shape to see fairness done rather than justice.

Seeker is James Bond without the sex and gadgets. He is a character who is based on reputation, and he only has to snap and snarl a little, and people crumbled in the face of his forthright questioning, but in the course of the novel, he only gets into a serious confrontation with Alexander Seaton to prove his credentials. Other than that, he’s so tough that when he wants to wash his clothes, he hurls himself at rocks in a river.

If anything, Seeker could do with a sidekick to lighten the load of being so tough that when he combs his hair, he doesn’t stop till he gets to the bone, and when he shaves, if there’s no blood, it means there’s still stubble. But who might step into this exalted position as Sancho Panza to Seeker’s, er, Torquemada? No candidates step forward immediately.

The plot is certainly engaging as it twists and turns even if it’s one of those books where some opening scene, which is a significant clue to what drives the tale, is soon forgotten. Nonetheless, the plot is sufficiently appealing for me to have me buying the next volume in the series.

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The Essex Serpent

By Sarah Perry.

Cora Seaborne is a wealthy, happily widowed amateur palaeontologist who ends up in the Essex village of Aldwinter, which is gripped by tales of the Essex serpent. She is introduced to William Ransome, the local vicar, and his wife, Stella, the local consumptive cliché. Seaborne and Ransome are attracted to each other and eventually have sex before parting. That appears to be the main plot.

Alongside the main plot, Luke Garrett, who fancies Seaborne, is a brilliant surgeon whose hand gets injured in a fight. His rich mate, Spencer, is a champagne socialist who gets involved in London’s housing crisis. The books ends with them as a covertly gay couple even if neither of them is. Seaborne’s companion, Martha, is the object of Spencer’s interest, who stirs his social compassion, but shacks up with Edward Burton, whose life was saved by Garrett’s surgery. Stella Ransome is a satire on the Cult of Thinness, who becomes more beautiful the thinner she gets. Seaborne’s peculiar son, Francis, may be autistic, but this is never established.

The plot rambles dully along without ever seeming to have a clear direction, and the subplot about housing in London has no real connection to events in Essex. Climaxes? Seaborne and Ransome’s copulating? The revelation that the Essex serpent might have been no more than an oarfish or an upturned, missing boat? Who knows? There’s no sense of the story really driving towards a significant conclusion.

Most of the time, The Essex Serpent sounds like a novel written by a Guardian reader about a bunch of Guardian readers transposed to the 19th century, and is packed full of obvious worthiness.

Nonetheless, there is some clever writing here. When Seaborne and Ransome first meet, it appears that his interests lie more in the ovine than the feminine; but this is like one of those films where the trailer is all of the interesting bits, and the rest is entirely missable.