Disgraced Laurence Jago decamps to his Cornish hometown in Scarlet Town, the third book in the series by Leonora Nattrass. Arriving in the midst of a chaotic election week, he encounters some familiar faces from his former life and soon after when a body is discovered, Laurence will be tasked with investigating.
1796. Disgraced former Foreign Office clerk Laurence Jago and his larger-than-life employer the journalist William Philpott return to Laurence’s home town of Helston, Cornwall, in the middle of a tumultuous election that has the inhabitants of the town at one another’s throats.
Only two men may vote in this rotten borough, and when one of them dies in suspicious circumstances, Laurence is ordered to investigate. No easy matter, thanks to the machinations of the rival political factions, not to mention the riotous performances of Toby the Sapient Hog.
Then the second elector is poisoned and suspicion turns on Laurence’s own cousin. Suddenly Laurence finds himself ensnared in generations of bad blood and petty rivalries, with his cousin’s fate in his hands…
If you’ve read this blog before, the chances are you’ll know how much I enjoy the Laurence Jago series, of which this is the third book. (You can read what I thought of the first two in my reviews for Black Drop and Blue Water.)
Initially, it was because Leonora Nattrass created her main character, Laurence Jago, from one of the many young men who clerked for the government at the time. Taking a low-ranking civil servant in a thankless job with a background he’d like to keep hidden from his employers, she made him both likeable and relatable, in spite of his developing opium addiction. This is, in part, down to his propensity to commit errors in judgement and how often he finds himself up against more powerful or dangerous people and their shady (political) machinations. Things that a young man simply shouldn’t have to deal with alone and, as Leonora Nattrass writes him, you can’t fail but champion him to overcome.
If Black Drop dealt in political intrigue and espionage at the heart of government and Blue Water saw Laurence on an overseas treaty mission to America, then Scarlet Town sees him hastily return home to Helston in Cornwall, where he intends to keep a low profile and recover from what he’s been through over the past eighteen months. Accompanied by his employer, ever ebullient journalist William Philpott, Mrs Philpott and their seven children, they arrive to find Laurence’s hometown in uproar.
Philpott looked entranced by the roar of laughter, screams and angry shouts magnified by the walls of the narrow street, while his wife was busy rebuking William Philpott junior for gurning back at the gawking faces beyond the window… The crowd was thickening and… the coach ground to a halt.
It’s 1796 and an election’s been called. Helston is a rotten borough (meaning it had a tiny electorate who were susceptible to control or coercion), and only two men have the vote here. Not that you’d immediately realise this from the clearly partisan crowds who are rampaging up and down the street.
The crowd parted to reveal a posse of running men, mouths horribly agape in blood-red painted faces. They were in some strange ecstasy beyond noticing pain or fear as they bore down on us, wildly drunk.
Leonora Nattrass plunges Laurence, William and his wife and all the little Philpotts into this clamorous chaos, and I couldn’t help but also feel buffeted by it, this maelstrom caused by the town’s Mayor challenging the status quo, until I, too, was carried upon the high tide of fervour and heightened energy which the crowd exudes and that feels so very dangerous and threatening. Laurence has precious little time to register the people from his past life in London who suddenly appear in front of him before he’s hurried off to the discovery of the body of the first elector. Which is when you know that Laurence’s return home will be anything but relaxing or quiet or provincial but as full of intrigue and suspense as his previous adventures. And this may make me seem really mean but that made my bookish heart sing.
It was market day, as well as election day, and the town was crammed with racket and congestion. Wagons thundered up and down the street, a peril to any unwary pedestrian… and a lad was throwing buckets of water about to settle the dust raised by the animals’ hooves.
Leonora Nattrass conjures Helston off the pages as you read, bringing the place and its people alive in all their squawking, shouting, grunting glory, clamouring for your attention long after they already have you firmly in their grasp. It may be an election story but this one’s potent with corruption, murder, poison, irascible old men, family feuds, the spice trade, and positively heady with love. And it’s told so well. We hear the Helston stories, whether they’re the rounds of the country doctor, the lives of the town’s children or the hard-to-fathom feuds and grudges held or acted upon and I adored how sparingly Leonora Nattrass uses the dialect to spice things up and give it some local flavour. I particularly liked that people were cakey, argyfyin’ or even teasy and how there’s a “mort o’ bleddy gossip in this town”.
And then, of course, there’s that scene-stealing Sapient Hog, who will prove more helpful than would first appear to Laurence and Philpott in unravelling all the intrigue and various plots and manoeuvring in this small town in Cornwall. He makes a joyous and mischievous addition to both proceedings and cast.
…he raised his snout as if suddenly electrified by a new smell, woofed three times, and then set off at a gallop down the hill towards the town. We could not hold him and we let go of the rope slipped around his collar. It waved like a banner for a moment before he sloughed it off. His plump hams twinkled from us down towards the crossroads where the crowd was waiting.
Leonora Nattrass has ensnared her main character and his employer (and her readers) in another gripping political intrigue but changed up the setting again and she’s pulled it off with aplomb. I think you could read this as a stand-alone but, even if you do, I’m pretty sure that reading this will make you want to hunt down Laurence Jago’s previous two adventures. I blooming love this series and how Leonora Nattrass is creating it (because, of course, I hope that it doesn’t end here) and can only marvel at how deftly she pulls you into the world of her books, bringing you along to experience everything with her characters, with all the accompanying sights and sounds and tastes and smells of its time. This is historical fiction at its best: there’s jeopardy and danger, intrigue, rich period detail, characters to love, hate, and even change your mind about, and it’s highly enjoyable. Scarlet Town is a rollicking good story.
Scarlet Town by Leonora Nattrass is the third book in the Laurence Jago series published by Viper Books, Serpent’s Tail crime imprint. It is out on 5 October as an audiobook, ebook and in hardback with the paperback due out next year. You can find it at Amazon UK (affiliate link), Bookshop.org (affiliate link), Hive and Waterstones. For more information on Leonora Nattrass and her books, check out her Author Website or follow her on X (fka Twitter)
My thanks to Rosie Parnham at the publisher for a review copy and inviting me to take part in the blog tour which starts today and continues until 7 October, details of which are below: