Thursday, February 9, 2012

Legacy of Blood by Alex Connor

London, 1732. William Hogarth is called to a cellar where a whore lies dead. But not just any whore, Polly Gunnell was the mistress of Frederick, Prince of Wales. Not only must this fact be kept secret, and is the reason for poor Polly’s death, but she was carrying his son.

Hogarth is filled with guilt at the sight of a woman he cared for, especially when he realises he is partially responsible for her murder. Hogarth painted a very recognisable picture of the future King leaving her bed.  A picture he included in his series, ‘A Whore’s Progress’.

The situation looks bad, but is worsened when left alone with the body, Hogarth discovers that Polly’s baby is still alive, barely. He takes the child away and hides it, together with a gold ring given to him by the Prince with an inscription identifying the boy’s parentage.

Centuries later, one man is entrusted to keep the proof of this line of succession hidden, and keeps a watchful eye on the Prince's descendant. Being an old-school, honourable man, Sir Oliver Peters fulfills his duty for many years.

Oliver then accepts a lift on a private jet, and during that flight, someone tells him he has stolen the painting of Polly and Frederick, apparently unaware of Oliver’s custodianship.  To protect the monarchy, Oliver must at all costs retrieve the painting, but he doesn’t know where it is and within days, the man who claims ownership is killed in a traffic accident.

Then others who took that same flight start dying too, and one interested party employs Victor Ballam, a disgraced art dealer to find out what is going on and if possible – retrieve the painting.

I enjoyed Alex Connor's The Rembrandt Secret and looked forward to reading this one. I was not disappointed, as she has a canny knack of building the tension and then leaves the reader floundering when all the clues she lays are proved wrong.  There’s never a quiet moment in this story and the long-dead Hogarth appears at intervals to tell us what he did and why – to some extent!  It seems it was as difficult keeping secrets in the eighteenth century as it is in the present.

The story rolls along to a satisfying conclusion where all the ends are tied up nicely – well, sort of!  I cannot say any more about the plot without spoiling the book for prospective readers.

This is Connor’s second novel about the art world, and she paints art dealers as a murky, dishonest, back-stabbing bunch, which makes me feel she has had extensive experience of that world. All her characters stand out, each with their own stories that affect their actions when it comes to honour, greed or a sense of self.  I enjoyed the way everyone looking for the painting had their own reasons for their interest, from its protection, pure greed or simply the pride of ownership.

One point I would make on a personal level is that I very much doubt the Royal Family would give two hoots about an illegitimate child born in 1732, either then or now, let alone his descendant.  Prince Frederick had nine legitimate children and three illegitimate ones, so it wasn’t as if the throne was shaky.  And why would Frederick himself leave evidence of the child’s identity?  The fact Hogarth couldn’t bear to destroy a work he was proud of makes more sense, and his sentimentality for the baby makes him human too.  In fact I became quite fond of poor William Hogarth and his battle with the demons he had unleashed by an act of compassion through Alex Connor’s prose.

In the end, my suspension of belief in the premise of the plot in no way spoiled my enjoyment of this rollicking story I couldn’t put down.