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.
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.