Review: Killing Beauties, by Pete Langman

23 January 2020 | Unbound | Paperback | £9.99 | #KillingBeauties
ISBN: 978-1-78965-065-5

England, 1655. Following the brutal civil wars the country swelters under a cloud of paranoia, suspicion and the
burgeoning threat of rebellion. With the fragile peace being won by Cromwell’s ever-efficient Secretary of State John
Thurloe, the exiled king Charles Stuart sends two spies on a dangerous mission to wrest back the initiative. These spies
are different, however: they are women. Their task? To turn Parliament’s spymaster into their unwitting accomplice.
Killing Beauties is a dark tale of subterfuge, jealousy and betrayal.
It is sometimes said that women are written out of history, but often they are not yet written in. Killing Beauties is based
on the true stories of two female spies from the 1650s and gives them the voice that only fiction can. Pete Langman.

My Review

Thanks to Anne of Random Things Tours, and to the author and publisher for my copy of this book.

The plot (in both senses) is simple but at the same time it is not. The story is told from the perspective of Susan Hyde, the chief ‘she-intelligencer’ of the book and from the perspective of John Thurloe, Cromwell’s spy master, and his Black Office men.

Susan runs the Sealed Knot’s spies and postal service, helping Charles Stuart in exile, nominally under the command of Sir Edward Hyde, Susan’s brother and the king’s closest advisor. Her mission, with the assistance of Diana Jennings, is to engineer a meeting with John Thurloe, find out what he knows about the Knot and to compromise him in some way.

John Thurloe, meanwhile, is taking apart their network of couriers and spies, sometimes quite literally because he does enjoy torture. He can’t seem to get to the centre of the web of Royalists though, the mysterious S.H. just out of his reach. He becomes Postmaster General as well as spymaster and sets up his own ‘Black Office’ to go through the post. A bit of luck brings Diana Jennings into his hands.

This was marvellous fun to read. Entertaining intrigue in Republican England. A murderous spymaster. A secret society of women spies. An impossible mission from the exiled king.

The characters were vivid and complex, with motives that are understandable if not always admirable. Molly is a lovely creation, especially. Innocent but not really so innocent, confused but determined, and clever.

The writing really brought London, and 17th century life, to life for me, earthy and loud. It captures the nuances of the culture and the complexity of the political and religious situation, and the language of the time. I loved the letters, with their idiosyncratic spelling in a time before standardisation.

Highly recommended historical fiction.


Author Bio

Pete Langman is a writer, academic, cricketer and sometime rock and roll guitarist who holds a PhD on Francis Bacon (the other one) and was diagnosed with Young Onset Parkinson’s Disease at 40. His non-fiction encompasses Cricket, Parkinson’s Disease, Music, History of Science, literature and culture, and has appeared in publications ranging from
The Guardian to Guitar and Bass Magazine. He lives between Leiden and Brighton with his partner Dr. Nadine Akkerman, award-winning author of Invisible Agents, who supplies him with historical expertise and who keeps asking if they can have a cat now, please.

When Pete Langman wrote Killing Beauties, he was lucky enough to have a central character who had escaped not only the novelist’s gaze but also the historiographer’s. Until, that is, Nadine Akkerman ferreted her out of the archives.

Her name was Susan Hyde.

Pete and Nadine developed an intimacy with Susan of unusual depth, as their partnership allowed a unique opportunity to create a work of historical fiction around a totally unknown woman. It’s a little like the old Jewish myth of the golem, a creature formed from inanimate material and brought to life by the insertion of a scroll bearing sacred words into its mouth. Similarly, Susan had been trapped in a series of letters that had
lain unread for some 350 years. As Nadine pieced them together, an image of Susan began to take shape. While writing Susan into history, Nadine persuaded Pete to write her into existence: the result was Killing Beauties.

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