Douglas Skelton

(Canelo Adventure, £14.99)


Douglas Skelton’s crime fiction has, until now, been mostly based in contemporary Scotland, and it’s impressive to see how easily he has adapted to the historical thriller. He has a natural feel for it, bringing 18th Century Edinburgh and London to vivid life, and not only capturing the flavour of the period but highlighting themes that resonate as strongly today as they did then.

Events are set in motion by the death of Queen Anne in 1714. A letter has gone missing, which Colonel Nathaniel Charters believes expressed the late Queen’s wish for the crown to pass not to George of Hanover but to her half-brother, James Stuart. If Charters is correct, this letter could be just what the Jacobites need to place James on the throne. It must be intercepted.

Luckily for Charters, he’s in a position to do something about it, for he commands a group known as the Company of Rogues, an assortment of individuals with useful skill-sets who can be called upon to do service for the crown. The man he selects for this mission is Jonas Flynt, a Scotsman who left his homeland many years earlier to answer “the call to adventure”. But his experience of war (which is how he met Charters) has left Flynt cynical and jaded. He has no faith in kings, gentry, politicians or even God. However, he knows that if he turns down this assignment Charters could produce witnesses to his activities as a highwayman and have him hanged. Like it or not, he must serve the state.

But there’s much more to Jonas Flynt than cynicism and world-weariness. He is a terrific character, one of the most compelling and charismatic anti-heroes to come along in a good while. Garbed like a Puritan, albeit with an incongruous peacock feather in his wide-brimmed hat and two pistols tucked into his belt, he’s a pragmatic, brooding man doing his best to survive in an imperfect world crowded with zealots, ideologues and swindlers. Quick-witted, resourceful, with a knack for a snappy comeback, he’s an egalitarian in a strictly hierarchical age, with no patience for the upper classes or the “corrupt and vicious” style of law and order enforced by the likes of Charters. Despite all he’s been through, his passion for honour and justice has never been fully extinguished.

Flynt’s enquiries in London’s underworld place the document in Edinburgh, the city he left as a teenager, and his return there puts him to the test. He has to rebuild the bridges he burnt when he left his father, step-mother, friends and former lover without a backward glance, while risking his life trying to outwit a Jacobite group called the Fellowship, who would pay handsomely for Queen Anne’s letter.

In what little downtime he has, Flynt has to grapple with serious considerations of loyalty and duty, his guilt over those he left behind all those years ago and the dangers his mission poses to those he loves. But since he’s barely able to walk down the street without bumping into the business end of a flintlock, blade or cudgel, or being drawn into verbal sparring matches with his opponents, or even at one point facing down a rioting mob, there isn’t time to draw breath, let alone get bored.

It’s a pacey and thoroughly engrossing thriller packed with intrigue, action and character, and word has it that Skelton is working on a sequel. Whether it focuses once more on Flynt, or introduces a brand-new member of the Company of Rogues, it can’t come soon enough.