Imagine a country divided, with the political atmosphere soured by increasingly bitter enmities and rivalries. Street demonstrations threaten to turn violent, and propaganda is reaching fever pitch.
Perhaps that’s not too much of a stretch from our present situation. As I write this, the forthcoming European elections seem set to turn as rancorous as any in living memory.
In the setting for my novel, Blood on the Stone, a murder mystery of the Restoration, the system of political parties was just emerging. Politicians stood as supporters of either Court or Country – the latter becoming known as ‘Whigs’.
My hero, Luke Sandys, is Chief Officer of the Oxford Bailiffs, holding the ancient office of constable: the nearest contemporary equivalent of a modern-day detective. King Charles II brings the English Parliament to the city, and a prominent MP is found stabbed to death. Investigating the murder, Luke must pursue the truth in the face of determined efforts by powerful interests to apportion blame, and take the law into their own hands.
The seventeenth century was one of the most tumultuous in our history, of course: riven by economic and political upheaval, including the civil war. It also saw the rapid development of ideas, notably the ‘Scientific Revolution’, touched off by the ‘heliocentric’ theory of Nicolaus Copernicus (the earth orbiting the sun, not the other way around). Oxford became a crucible of scientific discovery, with its ‘Natural Philosophy circle’ of the 1650s giving rise to the formation of the Royal Society.
The essentials of scientific method quickly caught on, leading to demands for other domains to meet the same standards. It’s no coincidence that the divine right of kings to rule – a mystical and, by definition, unproveable claim – was discarded in England shortly after publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica in 1687.
By then, Charles was dead, and his Roman Catholic brother, James II, would shortly vacate the throne as the nobility turned against him. In the background of Blood on the Stone is the so-called Exclusion Crisis, as the House of Commons sought to prevent James from succeeding; and the ‘Popish Plot’, supposedly a Jesuit conspiracy against the sovereign. It was later exposed as fraudulent, but not before it led to a renewed crackdown against England’s remaining ‘Papists’.
In writing a detective novel set in the English Restoration, I join a growing sub-genre of recently published fiction. High on my To-Be-Read list at the moment are the latest Challoner mystery by Susanna Gregory, and The King’s Evil, Andrew Taylor’s third whodunnit set in a London recovering from the Great Fire.
In all of them, we see the struggle being waged to establish evidence, logical deduction and due process, as the basis not only for solving crimes but also, implicitly, engaging with the world and organising it to the greatest human benefit.
For much of my adult life, I took it for granted that that struggle had been definitively won. Entering the profession of journalism, my remit was to find out and report the facts. It brought me to a rewarding spell at Tyne Tees TV, as a presenter and reporter on the Network North regional news programme, from Belasis.
Now, however, the line separating facts from claims feels increasingly challenged, in news and science alike. Climate change deniers; anti-vaxxers; the proliferation of partisan channels on social media: all have become wearisomely familiar features of our public sphere.
So perhaps there is something comforting – even thrilling – in stories that lead the reader on a dance around that line, before finally resolving the outstanding questions on either side of it. For such a drama to occur in an historical period when it was first being drawn, sometimes in the teeth of fierce opposition, might even redouble the satisfaction.