A first novel set in the Restoration London of 1676. King Charles is on his rocky throne, surrounded by a full complement of spies, lackeys, and mistresses. Among the latter is the Italian Duchess of Mazarin, who’s now supplanted the Duchess of Portsmouth. Nell Gwyn, a longtime favorite, is also still on the scene when a poet-playwright friend, Aphra Behn, enlists her help in the tutelage of would-be actress Elizabeth Decker, mistress of the Earl of Rochester, for the leading part in her newest play—a move Aphra hopes will improve her near-penniless state. She has opted to provide a funeral for Matthew and Elias Cavell, brothers who had been kind to her family on their harrowing ship journey nine years ago to Surinam, during which Aphra’s father had died. Approached one day by Elias, now a wasted beggar, she had gone to the Gospel House shelter, where she found an unrecognizable Matthew dead in his bed. Elias is found soon after, stabbed to death in Aphra’s own outhouse. As if all this weren—t enough, there’s Bevil Cane, tutor to Nell’s son, pestering her to read his play; her incorrigible sometime lover John Hoyle, secretly in and out of her house; and, in the background, a panoply of conspiracies at Court; animosities between Protestant and Catholic; the search for a politically volatile document and, at long last, Aphra’s near-fatal encounter with Elias’s killer. The story, burdened by subplots and a procession of unmemorable characters, often in disguise, sometimes approaches total confusion. Still, there’s a clutch of strong-minded women, a lively picture of Court life and London’s fetid streets, and Brown’s airy, unpretentious style. For fans of historical mysteries: a mildly interesting debut.