KILLING BEAUTIES is a gripping historical fiction novel set during the Protectorate of the 1650s and focuses on the underworld of espionage through the actions of the main character, Susan Hyde. Susan, sister to Edward Hyde (he who is best known for being the powerful advisor to Charles II and for his History of the Rebellion) is a she-intelligencer, or female spy, and her task is to extract what information she can from John Thurloe – by whatever means necessary. She lives in a world full of secret communications, intricate tamper-resistant letter folding, of poisons, seduction, and duplicity.
The real John Thurloe was a major historical figure during the 1650s, and it is no surprise that he has been made into characters in a few novels now, particularly Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost (previously reviewed on TSCL here). In Langman’s novel, readers are given more of an insight into his personal life. Susan Hyde’s life is, on the other hand, not well-known to most people at all, despite evidence she was a pro-Royalist spy during this time, and so having her as the protagonist was delightful.
I enjoyed the development of the relationship between the two main characters but personally would have liked even more in this area. The secondary characters are all fully-fleshed and interesting, I was shocked by a sudden – and very violent – turn one character takes, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget that scene! Langman’s writing style is my favourite kind – third person, beautifully written, and his research and erudition shine through each sentence. I loved the references to classical mythology, which were skilfully woven into the work as well.
In short, Killing Beauties is a pacy, sometimes coarse, visceral, and thrillingly dark tale of a daring she-intelligencer who risks everything for her loyalty to her king. You can smell the stench of mid-seventeenth-century London, feel the palpable tension of political intrigue, and the bitter taste of betrayal. I heartily recommend it to any lover of historical fiction.
SCL rating: 4/5