Friday, December 26, 2008


This book is very good narrative history; in parts, it is truly excellent.

The period of English history from the Restoration of the Stuarts in the person of Charles II, 1660, to the Glorious Revolution, the overthrow of James II, younger brother of Charles in 1688, is a fascinating one, and the events of this book take place during a portion of that period.

The immediate background to these events includes the English Civil War and the rise and fall of the Cromwells. It is a time marked by an extreme turmoil over religion, Protestant versus Catholic, in the affairs of state. Ironically, the period covered was also one of considerable and fairly open decadence in English society, showing once again how little religion has to do with morals.

This book has as chief characters Samuel Pepys and one of the lesser-known nasty pieces of work in modern history, John Scott. With a cast like that, you almost cannot miss.

Pepys, famous for a diary, which is a fact-filled look at part of the period's society and a somewhat salacious record of its morals, was an able and conscientious (at least after the Restoration) civil servant who rose to high rank. The important part of his career was associated with the Royal navy, going from Clerk of the Acts to the Navy to Secretary to the Admiralty Board and finally to Secretary for the Affairs of the Admiralty.

Scott was a lifelong fraudster, murderer, and opportunist who rose up and fell down several times in several countries. With "the gift of the gab," a talent for forgery, and great energy in his schemes, Scott was almost certainly a psychopathic personality. He crossed paths - and as it happens, swords - with Pepys virtually by accident. His unquenchable hatred of Pepys apparently was sparked by a random event in which Pepys, just doing his official duty, thwarted one of Scott's high-flown schemes for gaining fame and fortune. His intense hatred was then harnessed by those interested in the overthrow of Charles II, especially Lord Shaftsbury, himself a considerably larger-than-life and rather grotesque figure.

Pepys was charged with being a secret Catholic and being part of a plot to kill the King and see a Catholic Monarchy installed. The main accuser was the psychopathic John Scott. A modern reader might think that this seems such a simple matter to clear up - especially the part about being a Catholic, which Pepys was not - but there was an atmosphere thickly charged with paranoia and suspicion in England at the time, and it was being actively added to by people like Shaftsbury, himself interested in turning over the existing monarchy.

Because this period was also one of a rapidly changing balance of power between Parliament and the Crown, the King and his brother - the future James II - were not in a position to simply lift a loyal public servant from extreme danger. Pepys spent a long and exhausting period fighting charges that already had seen notable prisoners hung, cut down alive, castrated, disemboweled, and drawn-and-quartered - the contemporary penalty for treason, a penalty which itself tells us something of the frenzied paranoia of the time. He was in and out of prison, had many court dates, and spent a small fortune collecting evidence and trying to understand the precise nature of the plot against him, although he had understood immediately that it was part of some unknown larger effort to get at the Stuarts.

Ultimately he was victorious, but only because he was smart, had considerable resources to employ, and enjoyed a few lucky brakes with past associate or victims of Scott's coming forward from various countries, and, most importantly, the King finally felt comfortable enough reaching down with limited but indispensable help.

The first part of this book reads like a rip-roaring crime novel, but it may be enjoyed on several levels. The English paranoia of the time and the dark operations of the courts in matters of treason remind one very much of the insane swirl of events in America following 9/11. Pepys could almost be an American secret prisoner under the deliberately misnamed Patriot Act. The almost unbelievable career of John Scott reminds one of the way career killers and abusers are so rarely caught even today before they have done immense damage to others. The meek definitely do not inherit the earth still.