A country physician untangles a web of deadly crime in Jacobean England.
Dr. Gabriel Taverner traveled the known world as a ship’s surgeon until an accident forced him to give up the sea. Now he’s bought a house in Devon, where he grew up, and set up his practice as a physician. His sister, Celia, comes for a visit while her husband, Jeromy Palfrey, is away on business to collect a shipment of Venetian silk for Nicolaus Quinlie, his employer. Quinlie, renowned for the quality of his goods, will provide silk for the coronation of James I, reminding Gabriel how his beautiful, vivacious sister looked in the blue-green silk of her wedding day. But the Celia who arrives is pale, anxious, and unusually short-tempered, and she doesn’t stay long. Gabriel puts his worry about her—and his dislike of her superficially charming husband—aside when the coroner, Theophilus Davey, calls him to a derelict riverside quay and a decomposing corpse stabbed through the heart. Gabriel’s own heart sinks when he realizes it’s Jeromy. At first he thinks his brother-in-law killed himself, but a closer look makes him realize the man was murdered. The local midwife saw a lurking man in a strange beaked mask near where Jeromy was killed. Gabriel later realizes it must have been a plague mask, meant to protect physicians from deadly miasmas. As he and Davey uncover more unsavory details about Jeromy, as well as documents linking Quinlie to two plague islands in Venice where the sick were left to die, more nefarious developments threaten Gabriel’s attempts to protect his beloved sister. Unfortunately, the lively buildup of suspense falters because Clare (The Night Wanderer, 2016, etc.) feels the need to include long flashbacks and explications informed more by 21st-century psychology than 17th-century history.
Although this series debut would have benefited from more showing and less telling, a thoughtful hero and a likable supporting cast make a promising beginning.