The Chelsea Strangler -- Susanna Gregory

THE GREAT Plague of London provides a vivid backdrop for the latest investigation by 17th century spy Thomas Chaloner, new out in paperback.

The capital is half-empty, abandoned by aristocrats and royals able to flee to the safe surroundings of the countryside.

Thomas is unable to accompany them because his employer the Earl of Clarendon wants him to investigate suspicious goings-on at a private sanitorium for the insane.

He heads for Chelsea, which in the 1600s, just like nowadays, was a riverside getaway with fine mansions occupied by the rich and famous.

There have been thefts at the sanitorium, but more worryingly, the murder of one of the inmates.

Chaloner has hardly begun investigating the myriad suspects – staff, doctors, minor aristocrats – before the strangler begins thinning the suspect pool.

Could the murders be linked to a nearby prison where Dutch prisoners of war are housed following their defeat at the recent Battle of Lowestoft?

As usual with Gregory’s novels there is a labyrinthine plot set amidst a painstakingly researched background.

She keeps a tight control over the characters and story, and coupled with the intriguing setting amidst a dark time in London’s history, this is one of Gregory’s best Chaloner novels.

David Knights