Septimus Oates is a scholastic sleuth caught up in a regal conspiracy that takes the reader on a trip through European history during the 150 years leading up to the start of the Great War. The aspiring Oxford research fellow witnesses an apparent murder in a university side street where the only tangible link connecting the bloodied victim to the police statement provided by Oates is a folder of documents which reveals a ticking time-bomb of bigamy and deceit that threatens to shake the constitutional core of the monarchy.
Toby Purser, the Mansfield College educated author, conveys a geographical and cultural map of Oxford evoking sepia tinted glimpses into an Edwardian style and approach to life long since destroyed by the bellicose ambitions of the Kaiser in 1914. As the story moves seamlessly from the illegal and secret marriage of the future George 111 through to the potentially explosive ramifications and intentions of the eponymous Zaharoff the plot’s credibility is enhanced by the author’s use of historical fact.
No self respecting amateur detective though would enter the fray without a trusted companion and for Oates his youthful inquisitiveness is suitably complemented by Quayle who as his former master from Winchester appears to lead a chaotic bachelor lifestyle but in reality this shambolic veneer cleverly disguises a secret and unexpected double life.
The combination of these two characters and their quaint use of the now much parodied “Enid Blyton” style of language could potentially detract from the less cynical ambitions of the author. However the language enhances rather than detracts from the story and by the subtle intertwining of fact and fiction the author’s key players are portrayed as exemplars of bygone virtues whose thirst for adventure and the truth are character traits to be admired and in stark contrast to our current age of warped values where the blurring of ambiguity and the truth are the norm rather than the exception.
The many twists and turns of this plot which see the dynamic duo ultimately retreating into the shadows inhabited by the nascent secret intelligence leaves Oates questioning his future and a character ripe for more adventures.
The Zaharoff Conspiracy (A Septimus Oates Mystery) by Toby Purser.
Published by Methuen.
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