Publication Date: Available now from Quercus.
London, 1657, the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell.
No one knows where Damian Seeker originated from, who his family is, or even his real name. Mothers frighten their children by telling them tales of The Seeker. All that is known of him for certain is that he is utterly loyal to Cromwell, and that nothing can be long hidden from him.
In the new, fashionable coffee houses of London, a murder takes place. All London is ringing with the news that John Winter is dead, the lawyer Elias Ellingworth, found holding a knife over the bleeding body of the dying man, held in the Tower.
Despite the damning evidence, Seeker is not convinced of Ellingworth’s guilt. He will stop at nothing to bring the right man to justice…
S.G. MacLean: Looking for The Seeker
When I set out to write The Seeker, set in the 1650s London of Oliver Cromwell and featuring Damian Seeker, an officer in the intelligence services of the Protectorate, it was with more than a degree of trepidation. My editor had long suggested I should set a book in London, my other books, featuring my disgraced minister turned university teacher, Alexander Seaton, having been set mainly in Seventeenth century Scotland. I’ve lived my whole life in Scotland, have a PhD in Scottish History, and a PhD in that period of its history, and felt comfortable in that milieu. But London? I knew little enough about the Twenty-First century city, never mind its Seventeenth century predecessor. It didn’t seem possible.
But then I reminded myself of 2 things:
1) I am a sentient adult
2) There had been a time in my life when I hadn’t known anything about C17th Scotland either.
So, I set to work. Almost immediately, I spotted that BBC4 was airing a documentary, presented by Dan Cruickshank, on London in the C17th. I sat down in front of it, a bit apprehensively, and to be honest, a bit grumpily, not expecting to be impressed. But, oh my goodness! How wrong I was. Cruickshank is an engaging and enthusiastic presenter, and he soon had me in the palm of his hand. When he came to the emergence of the phenomenon of the London coffee House, I was absolutely hooked. In the coffee houses, I found my story. In these amazingly egalitarian institutions, strangers and friends from all walks of life could meet to smoke, drink the intoxicating new brew, and discuss every piece of news and rumour of the day. It seemed the perfect setting for a murder mystery. Introducing female characters required a little ingenuity – they weren’t that egalitarian, but the coffee house provided the perfect springboard in to the teeming world of news men, printers, wealthy merchants, foreign travellers, Protectorate agents and Royalist spies that was Cromwellian London.
I also now had the perfect excuse to indulge my chief, costly passion – the purchase of books. Books on coffee houses, on spies, on the new mania for printed news; books on English furniture, fashion, books of maps, surveys of the city, memoirs and biography, more maps. And then there were the CDs – C17th English and Dutch music – essential; an audio version of the Tempest with Ian McKellan; Kenneth Branagh’s brilliant reading of the Diary of Samuel Pepys. Some more maps.
This was all very well – and I do this with every book (although usually with less of an obsession with maps), but the most important way for me to feel my way in to a setting is through my feet, or rather my eyes, as my feet take me round the places my seventeenth century characters would have walked. London, of course, presented me with a couple of problems:
1) I live north of Inverness.
2) The Seeker is set in 1654, i.e. 12 years before the Great Fire burned much of the place to the ground.
1) Inverness has an airport.
2) Despite the very elegant plans for rebuilding the city that Charles II had John Evelyn and Christopher Wren, amongst others, draw up, Londoners, God bless them, had no intention of waiting for beautification; they simply came back in from the fields to which they had fled and threw up new houses where the old ones had stood. The result of this is that much of the street layout from Damian Seeker’s city is relatively unchanged, and most still have their amazingly evocative names. It is still possible to walk from the Tower in the east to the – albeit new – St Paul’s in the west of the city on largely the same streets, along the same street pattern that existed in the 1650s. More than that, there are still some miraculous survivals of those pre-fire days. One is the church of St Olave on the corner of Hart Street and Seething Lane, where Pepys and his magnificent, much put-upon wife worshipped, another is St Michael’s Church, facing directly on to Cornhill in the very heart of the City of London, utterly dwarfed by the surrounding modern financial institutions. Go down the narrow St Michael’s Alley at its side, and you come upon a wine bar with a plaque beside the door telling you this is the site if the very first coffee house in London. Go around the corner, and you find yourself looking at a tiny churchyard, a lovely quiet green space left over from the medieval city and tucked away just yards from one of the busiest commercial centres in the world.
I got very sore feet, walking the streets from the Tower of London, along through the City and down past St Pauls to the Temple and so to the river and towards Westminster, but Damian Seeker’s London became more alive to me with every step. It wasn’t long before I came to love the city I found underneath.
However, I should probably also mention the candles. Back home in the far north, in my little study, I wanted to create for myself an ambience that would take me back to that city as I wrote. As well as music, visual prompts, and sore feet, I felt the need for the appropriate aromas to help me recreate Seeker’s London, or at least to give me the impression that I might just be in a quiet corner of Kent’s Coffee house. I don’t smoke a pipe, and there is only so much coffee a person can sensibly drink. I decided that what I needed in my study were some coffee-scented candles. This was a mistake. It turns out there is a reason coffee-scented candles can only be bought on the internet. They turn the white walls of your study – and presumably your lungs – black. Don’t try this at home. But do try Branagh’s Pepys, the Museum of London, the Queen’s House at Greenwich, the V&A. And do walk the streets of London, until you too find its beating, historic heart.
The Seeker is available now: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Seeker-Damian-1/dp/1782061657/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=1-1&qid=1436734990