The Sweet Smell of Decay, Paul Lawrence's first installment of the Harry Lytle Chronicles, opens in the year 1664, with Oliver Cromwell dead and Charles Stuart occupying the throne of England where feuds abound, religious temper seethes, and witch-hunting is heinous sport.
Accompanied by the pious butcher, Davy Dowling, Harry Lytle finds himself standing reluctantly in the vestry of St. Brides Church. Is this woman lying before him a cousin - or no? Harry hasn't a clue. Other than the cryptic letter from his father tucked safely in his pocket. Nor does the relationship in question even matter as he stands over Anne Giles' ravaged corpse. What had she done to deserve such a dastardly end to her young life? Her slight body bound to the pulpit, red hair splayed about her shoulders and breasts, eyes gouged from their sockets and a cord tied around her mouth with such force the killer broke her teeth.
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth? Clues Harry will seek, and clues he will find, for he and Dowling have been charged with solving this gruesome murder by a trusted advisor to the King himself!
Not that Harry Lytle goes about the countryside seeking to solve crimes of such vileness. He much rather fancies himself in one of London's fine taverns like the Crowne where he partakes to his heart's content of pipes and ale.
But he is Anne Giles relative, is he not?
Now, where shall he and Dowling begin their search? Perhaps with St. Brides' rector who speaks of witchery and missing keys? The old woman, Mary Bedford, selling meats in the village and perceived to practice the black arts? Or maybe young Anne's husband, the very cause of her estrangement from her family?
The trail of "What ifs" steer Harry and Dowling hastily to the dungeon-like cells of Newgate prison where a man named Richard Joyce is already held for Anne's murder, and within days, will be tried, hung, drawn and quartered if found guilty - and he will be found guilty. But Harry's gut says Joyce killed no woman. Alas, Harry's confounded gut screams Joyce's innocence!
From Westminster Hall to The Mermaid Tavern on Cheapside, a dank cellar in Alsatia and concluding in a shocking courtroom trial with a most surprising outcome, Paul Lawrence invites readers to accompany Harry Lytle on a dangerous tromp through city and countryside where no one and nothing is as it seems. Time and again, while reading Lawrence's novel, I mused at how his historical mystery could be transported to modern times and easily hold its own.
The Sweet Smell of Decay (ISBN 9781905636426, Beautiful Books LTD) is followed by the sequel, A Plague of Sinners (ISBN 9781905636914, Beautiful Books LTD) . I'm pleased to report I've read both, and Paul Lawrence has me thoroughly hooked. If you like well-crafted, witty tales with endearing characters, revolting villains, clever twists and unpredicted turns, this series does not disappoint. I eagerly await the third installment. (Reviewed by Sharon Cupp Pennington, author of
Hoodoo Money & Mangroves and Monsters)