A Death at Fountains Abbey - Antonia Hodgson
A Death at Fountains Abbey - Antonia Hodgson ****
A Death at Fountains Abbey is the third of Antonia Hodgson's Thomas Hawkins novels, and in these books she's created an intriguing character and a fascinating blend of historically informed crime fiction. For anyone coming new to the series here, it takes a while to warm to Hawkins or really work out what his role and position is, but this just makes figuring things out a little more interesting, and it certainly doesn't detract from reading the novel as a standalone historical crime thriller.
The colourful backstory to Thomas Hawkins is enhanced by his recent escape from death, presumably in the previous book, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins. Having survived execution on the gallows, he has acquired an even greater mystique and reputation, known to many as Half-Hanged Hawkins. Set in 1728, Hawkins is in service to Queen Caroline in some unofficial capacity, who in this latest novel uses some leverage she has over him to send him to Fountains Abbey, where former Chancellor John Aislabie is seeking assistance having been threatened over a land dispute. The matter however is far more complicated that that, and hence the need for someone like Hawkins to be involved.
What lies behind the Queen's command is an implicit threat of blackmail. Aislabie has retired to his Lincolnshire estate in disgrace for his part in the ruinous South Seas Scheme, but he is suspected of still retaining a green ledger which could implicate the royal family and many senior establishment figures in the scandal of the failed shares scheme. Hawkins has been charged with recovering the ledger, but first he needs to find out who has been leaving death threats in the shape of slaughtered deer at Aislabie's door. The matter is complicated further by the appearance of a woman who claims to be Aislabie's daughter Lizzie, who was believed to have died in a household fire that also claimed the ex-Chancellor's first wife.
What is fascinating about all this, is that much of what Hodgson writes about has a strong basis in historical fact. John Aislabie was a real figure (as are most of his family and household described in the book), Fountains Abbey exists and was indeed the subject of frequent disputes over land and property, and as a government minister he was largely response for the debacle of the South Seas Scheme,. which involved many royals, nobles and other notable members of the establishment. What is complete fiction of course is the whole intrigue of death threats, murder, blackmail and intrigue, but even there's there it has some foothold in reality.
It might be a made-up story and involve traps, tricks and twists familiar in the genre, with dark villains hatching improbably complex plots and grandstanding cliff-hangers, but even there Hodgson's extensive research means that it's not entirely without plausibility in the character and nature of the figures she uses. John Aislabie in particular is a fascinating character, and from the few references the author includes in the afterword, it's clear that she has just expanded on this personality and his likely behaviour.
The novel is accurate and credible in that respect, and it's a terrific murder-mystery conspiracy crime caper at the same time, but its adherence to historical accuracy doesn't extend to slavish period mannerisms. While there is careful attention paid to class differences and how they coexist, the dialogue and behaviours are a lot freer and modern in expression, manner and swearing. That's a necessary concession I would think, and if nothing else it does present an amusing contrast, particularly as it's Hawkins, his wife Kitty and his newfound assistant Sam, who seem to gleefully delight in the freedom they have to push beyond what are deemed to be acceptable social boundaries. It's this that gives A Death at Fountains Abbey something of an edge.
A Death at Fountains Abbey (Thomas Hawkins Book 3) is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 25th August 2016