Book Review: The Bloodless Boy by Robert J Lloyd

Rob Lloyd
At work in EC3, I am surrounded by references to Robert Hooke’s London. Gresham College, where Hooke lived and worked for many years, was originally on the site of the former Nat West Tower on Old Broad Street. The Monument, designed by Hooke to memorialise the Great Fire, is just down the road. I pass his masterpiece church, St Edmund King & Martyr, every morning on Lombard Street on the way to the office. And Hooke was buried just across the street from me in St Helen’s Bishopsgate.

Gresham College

The Monument

St Edmund, King & Martyr, Lombard Street

Hooke’s burial plaque at St Helen’s, Bishopsgate

Despite all these reference points, I have to admit to knowing relatively little about Hooke or his work. My own researches have kept me in Georgian and Regency London for most of the past decade and until I started Robert J Lloyd’s thriller The Bloodless Boy, I knew next to nothing about the Restoration or about London in the period immediately after England’s Civil War.

Let me say it from the outset, The Bloodless Boy is a cracker that had me gripped from the first chapter and me on edge until the end. The story is set in 1678 in the London of Charles II. A New Philosophy is in vogue and a new London is being rebuilt after the Great Fire, led by the great thinkers of the Royal Society including Sir Christopher Wren, Sir Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke. The story centres around the polymath Hooke, who at the outset of the book is Curator of Experiments at Gresham College.

Lloyd does a magnificent job of evoking the atmosphere of the New Philosophers. From the opening sentence when Harry Hunt, Hooke’s young assistant, stops to examine raindrops on his spectacles turning to snow, we are constantly reminded of the presence of enquiring minds. The bloody and brutal Civil War, only decades earlier, casts a long shadow. When Hooke and Harry are roped into an investigation into why a young boy’s body has been dumped on the bank of the Fleet, its blood first having been drained, Hooke instinctively seeks to keep a low profile, fully aware of the the dark secrets and past allegiances that have led to so many lives being lost. But Harry, too young and innocent to remember the conflict, and keen to emerge from Hooke’s shadow by earning his own scientific stripes, cannot stop his burning ambition and curiosity from dragging him irrevocably into the path of a dangerous plot hatched by men with regicide on their minds.

Lloyd maintains a lively, exciting pace, driven by short chapters and frequent changes of scenery. His biggest achievement is to bring vividly to life all his main characters: the pallid, tetchy and ambitious Hooke; the sinister and calculating Lord Shaftesbury; the intelligent, charming and disarming Charles II. These famous names spring to life without ever seeming artificial, but Lloyd’s biggest success is with Harry Hunt – Hooke’s little-known assistant, known to history only from passing references in Hooke’s diary, whom Lloyd develops into an attractive hero: modest, conscious of his own failings, loyal to Hooke but anxious to prove his own worth through hard work and bravery in a world of geniuses.

As the story develops, we meet many of the leading figures of Restoration London: John Locke, Titus Oates, and of course Hooke and King Charles himself. There is an attention to historical detail that would impress readers of Patrick O’Brian, and Restoration London’s geography comes vividly alive: Wren’s famous churches are still works in progress – for example we are told that St Bride’s is partly rebuilt in Fleet Street but ‘still without its spire’. We also visit Garraway’s Coffee House, The Monument, the old London Bridge with its waterwheel, Truman’s Black Eagle Brewery on Brick Lane, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and the Chelsea Physic Garden.

The Bloodless Boy had its roots in Lloyd’s MA thesis, which explored Hooke’s role as Britain’s first professional scientist. It has taken a long time to reach fruition and I really hope it gets the success it deserves. Rob tells me there’s a follow up in the works, so look out for that too.

The Bloodless Boy is available here as an e-book from Amazon, at £1.99 it was worth every penny. 5 stars!

You can learn more about Robert J Lloyd’s work at his Facebook page, here.

More on the history of this part of the City of London in this post on the Old Signs of Lombard Street, here.




Book Review: Criminal London

Criminal London - High Res

Stay in London long enough and you’ll end up stumbling across crime – or if you’re unlucky, it will find you. So begins the introduction to Kris and Nina Hollington’s Criminal London, which goes on to recount the 1924 story of one Mrs Mahon who, suspecting her husband of infidelity, began an investigation that revealed not just a mistress, but that her husband had murdered and dismembered her.

I have read quite a few books on London’s criminal underworld, past and present, and when I took delivery of Criminal London I admit to wondering how there could possibly be room for another one. Two days later, however, I can confirm not only that this is a fascinating and practical guide that will be consulted over and again, but also – and this is where it scores most heavily – one that will be carried with me on my travels.

The Hollingtons’ work is billed as ‘a sightseer’s guide to the capital of crime’ and it succeeds brilliantly in this regard. It manages to remain pocket-sized yet its 300 plus pages are crammed with interesting detail and stories about London’s famous and lesser-known villains and crime scenes, neatly crafted by author and journalist Kris Hollington. Each site gets a page to itself and is brought to life by well-chosen full page photographs, many in colour, by Kris’s wife Nina.

Criminal London spreads 2

The content is fascinating. All the old favourites are here, from Jack Sheppard to Jack the Ripper and, of course, London’s infamous gang families: the Krays, Richardsons and Sabinis. There are dozens of less well-known stories here, too – and some remarkable coincidences. My personal favourite concerns the case that inspired the 1950 film The Blue Lamp, which itself spawned London’s first TV cop series, Dixon of Dock Green. One afternoon in 1947, London’s famous executioner Albert Pierrepoint, was having a quiet drink in his local, the Fitzroy Tavern in Charlotte Street, when he witnessed a hit-and-run on a nearby jewellers at which a member of the public was shot and killed. Five months later, after a manhunt and Old Bailey trial, Pierrepoint found himself hanging two of the perpetrators.

The book hangs together well. As Hollington writes in his introduction, the locations were chosen for their accessibility, importance and proximity to each other to enable the book to be used as a practical walking guide. The sites (more than 100 of them) have been grouped into seven sections: one for each of the four points of the central London compass and three specific walks covering the territory of the Kray twins, Jack the Ripper and Arthur Conan Doyle. There are helpful maps and diagrams and each location is accompanied where relevant by key phone numbers, websites, opening times, prices and nearest tube stations. The authors have really thought this through: the listed locations even include a good scattering of pubs where walkers can take a break at the scene of a crime. My only criticism is that the text is on the small side but this is worthwhile consequence of the detail that has been packed in.

Criminal London spreads 3

The blurb ends: ‘perfect for adventurous tourists and curious Londoners’. This curious Londoner agrees.

Criminal London: a Sightseer’s Guide to the Capital of Crime

By Kris Hollington, photographer Nina Hollington.

AURUM, 21st March 2013, £10.99 (although you can currently get it for £7.58 from Amazon via this link)


The publishers, Aurum Press, are kindly offering a free copy of the book to the winner of the following competition. To take part, follow this blog and answer the following questions:

  1. What was the occupation of Albert Pierrepoint’s father?
  2. What job did Albert do after he retired as Executioner?
  3. Which famous war criminal did Pierrepoint hang at Wandsworth on 3 January 1946?

Please send answers by email to: julianwoodford[at]gmail[dot]com

The winner will be chosen at random from all correct entries received before midnight on 5th April 2013 and will be contacted directly by the publisher.

Book review: City: a Guidebook for the Urban Age by P D Smith

P D Smith’s infectious enthusiasm for urban life pervades this book. City: a Guidebook for the Urban Age is cleverly constructed to mimic the cities it describes: as Smith explains in his introduction, it is a book in which you can wander and drift, following any of a number of pathways without fear of getting lost.

With more than half of humanity now city dwellers, a proportion predicted to continue to rise sharply, Smith has written a celebration of what he sees as undoubtedly humankind’s greatest achievement. It’s a remarkable book. Enjoyable and enlightening, City is easy to read but also encyclopaedic in its multi-dimensional journey through urban life. It is as packed with facts as Mumbai is with people, including a scholarly wad of notes and a great bibliography, yet Smith never lets this impede the pace and interest of the reader’s journey. Based on reading this book, P D Smith would be an excellent city guide. Reading it felt like being on a simultaneous walking tour of all the world’s major cities, moved along at a brisk pace but always with permission to stop and browse at any of the myriad points of interest along the way.

The book is structured using a sense of journey and also a thematic approach that considers all the major aspects of urban life. Instead of beginning with the history of ancient civilisations, Smith begins with the experience of arrival, evoking the sheer sense of wonder that a first visit to a high-rise city can trigger. We read of Nick Carraway being blown away by the Manhattan skyline in The Great Gatsby; of the awe experienced by Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors as they entered the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán in 1519.

Among the themes Smith deals with are architecture, infrastructure and transport – with some particularly interesting sections on inventions that enabled modern city life such as writing, electricity and lifts. In doing so he successfully presents ‘the city as organism’ but never lets the reader forget that cities are about their human inhabitants – as the introductory quote from Coriolanus states: What is the city but the people? The city in film, theatre, books and music; graffiti, language and dialect; carnival and religion; trade, shopping and food; the city’s role in democracy and protest: all are part of Smith’s Grand Walking Tour. Chapters are nicely spaced, supplemented with plenty of high quality colour images and interspersed with short, punchy insets on related topics.

For lovers of London, City is a great read. As well as the fascinating contextual threads outlined above, there were many specific tidbits of London lore, from the grandeur of the toilets at Waterloo Station to the wonderful tale of a dinner at the Savoy in 1905. My favourite, though, is an account of the importance of London as stamping ground of the literary flâneur: the observer of the urban street from John Stow and John Gay through Poe and Dickens and on to Sinclair and Self in our own times.

Smith is repeatedly drawn to the continuity of urban life across time and space. He is equally comfortable describing the first urban civilisations as he is describing the cities of the future: we travel seamlessly through the millennia from Jericho to Babylon, Athens, Rome, London, Paris and New York, examine the astonishing progress in urban technology being experienced in today’s South Korean cities before taking a leap into the future. In doing so, Smith’s hope and enthusiasm shine through relentlessly – unapologetically optimistic, while never hiding the apocalyptic risks, he is clear in his belief that cities are the solution, not the problem. Rather than succumb to a Blade Runner world, Smith prefers that one day, the sentient city may be the thing that saves us from ourselves.

Review by Julian Woodford, 2013.

City: a Guidebook for the Urban Age by P D Smith (Bloomsbury, 2012).

Available from Amazon (Kindle edition £3.99):

Julian Woodford’s book, The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron, Godfather of Regency London, will be published soon.