Chocolate House Treason by David Fairer – Review
By Sandra Callard
David Fairer, Lecturer and Professor of Eighteenth Century Literature at Leeds University for forty years, has written books on this era for most of his professional life – and he has now written his first fiction novel, Chocolate House Treason, a murder mystery set in 1708 during the time of Queen Anne’s reign.
These are the tumultuous early years of the eighteenth century as the fledgling Union of Great Britain lurches on its infant feet towards democracy, and foremost in the minds of most thinking people is the deadly and apparently never-ending battle for supremacy between the Whigs and the Tories as it winds its tortuous path through the fading days of the House of Stuart.
Essential to the story is the Good Fellowship Coffee House, soon to rise in stature and become the Bay Tree Chocolate House. The coffee house was a requisite of late Stuart London and was frequented by an assortment of intelligentsia who came to drink, talk, argue, write and generally bring the glory of their words to a waiting world. But an anonymous poet nicknamed Bufo begins to leave scurrilous and possibly traitorous poems in the Coffee House, and so begins a frightening and obsessive string of crimes which will reach the pinnacles of power in London society.
Tom Bristow, a budding poet, his friend Will Lundy, an aspiring law student and Mrs Mary Trotter, the landlady of the Good Fellowship Coffee House, are the unlikely trio who make it their business to save their friend, printer John Morphew, who has been framed for murder, from the gallows.
Their trail for justice takes them through the filth and horror of London’s slums to the glories and excesses of the royal courts and the towering and mighty legal courts, as they experience events that will change their lives and set a course for their future. All the characters are sketched with an expert eye and Mrs Trotter in particular comes alive with a uniquely clear precision.
The book is indeed a masterly tome of more than 700 pages and includes an Epilogue and some 17 pages of explanatory notes on the many historical characters who are brought to life in the book, as well as those which have sprung from the fertile mind of the author. As it happens, these notes are extremely useful as the amount of characters is copious and requires concentration. The plot twists and turns at some speed and has numerous passages of lengthy conversations which require assiduous focus, although I enjoyed the application very much.
This is not a book for the faint-hearted. It is long and contains some prolonged passages which could perhaps be condensed without losing the rhythm or sense of the scene, but it is a huge and solid achievement for a debut novel.
David Fairer’s innate knowledge of the historical era shines from every page, but I get the sense that his love of that knowledge is so great that he wants to imbue his passion to the reader. I happen to love history and certainly learned from this book, so it did not jar with me, but it may not be for readers of the more traditional, Christie-type murder mystery whodunnits.
For me that would be their loss, as this is without doubt a stunning debut novel from an author with uncommon knowledge of his subject matter and plenty of literary talent.
‘Chocolate House Treason’ by David Fairer is published by Troubador, paperback £9.99