17th Century England. Historians know this period as one of the most turbulent moments of British history. Rebellions are commonplace. The country is beset by plague and great fires. Kings are deposed, beheaded, and later restored (new kings with still-connected heads and bodies, it should be said).
In short, it is a time that is rife for inspiration and rollicking stories. Yet it’s also a period that often suffers from a classical – and rather uninspiring – way of looking at all these events: one that focuses on all the things rich, powerful, men were doing, and not paying huge amounts of attention to the stories of other – perhaps even more interesting – people.
Author Pete Langman looks to correct that with his novel, Killing Beauties, published by innovative publishers, Unbound. In this book we follow a secret society – a “sisterhood” – of female spies. Diana Jennings and Susan Hyde are our protagonists, two secret agents inspired by the painstaking historical research undertaken by Langman’s partner, Dr Nadine Akkerman, while she was researching her own book Invisible Agents: women and espionage in seventeenth-century Britain.
Diana and Susan are almost a ready-made dream for an author of historical fiction. And Langman brings both of these incredible women to life – filling in the not-inconsiderable gaps in the historical records where traces of these women vanish from the archives.
At a time in history where women were restricted in having their own personal agency by the patriarchal system around them, it’s hugely refreshing to see a novel driven forward so much by these two female characters. Though the historical realities of the day make this a challenge both Diana and Susan are keenly aware of, as one observes: “these are dangerous times”.
It’s certainly a character-led book, though the plot of the novel itself is suitably fun, and entertainingly full of the twists and turns you’d expect from a spy novel.
Indeed, there are moments Killing Beauties reads like a (good) cross between a Hilary Mantel novel and one by John Le Carré. This means, in short, that there’s something for most readers to be found and enjoyed in this book; whether you’re seeking to scratch a historical fiction itch, or the more classic thrills of a spy-led adventure novel.