Book Review: The Bloodless Boy by Robert J. Lloyd
By Janet WebbNovember 16, 2021
It’s not unusual for historical figures to appear on the pages of mysteries and such is the case with The Bloodless Boy. Robert Hooke, a noteworthy natural philosopher, and his former assistant Harry Hunt, the hero of The Harry Hunt Adventures, were well-known figures in post-Cromwellian London. On a snowy New Year’s Day in January of 1678, Sir Edmund Bury Godfrey sends a message to Robert Hooke, asking him to go to the bridge at Holborn, which spans the Fleet River. Interestingly, Hooke is the architect of the ambitious rebuild of the Holborn Bridge and the Fleet Canal. Hooke’s new assistant Tom tells Harry that Hooke wants him to go to the bridge. When Harry arrives, he is struck by Sir Edmund’s distinctive appearance, dressed from head to toe in black, resembling a large inquisitive raven.
Harry’s mentor is always urging him to be cooler and more dispassionate but Harry is revulsed by what he sees.
A dead boy, naked, possibly as young as two years, at most as old as three, lay in the mud on his side. Back curved, head bowed to his chin, arms and legs folded to his body.
The falling snow softened his outline, making it look as if he had come up from the ground. Digested, then expelled.
How did the boy die? Harry turns the body over and he and Hooke discuss the manner of death. Harry and Hooke agree that it’s easily explicable. Well, perhaps if you’re a scientist. The little body has puncture marks, each with written ink by it and there was also a letter left behind which Sir Edmund pockets.
‘Going into the skin,’ Hooke continued, ‘and on, deeper, into the iliac arteries, these holes shows the insertion of hollow tubes. They have a similar diameter to the shaft of a goose-feather. There are four such apertures, used to drain him of his blood.’
The question is why. Hooke and Harry think the writing on the body may hold some clues but as scientists, they do not jump to conclusions. Sir Edmund has a culprit in mind.
‘It is papistry, mark my words.’
Hooke looked at him mildly. ‘You steer us where we do not necessarily wish to go. Nothing here shows Catholicism.’
Hooke is perturbed by the state of the body but he’s also sophisticated in the ways of London gossip and realizes the importance of keeping the story under wraps. It’s a reminder that the current tension between scientific facts versus spin is not a recent phenomenon. Controlling information is a longstanding tactic of those in power. London is somewhat of a power-keg: the effects of the Great Fire of London, simply known as the Great Conflagration, are still being felt twelve years later. There are persistent and not untoward “rumors of Catholic plots, devil-boys, and sinister foreign assassins.” Harry Hunt lives in perilous times. Oliver Cromwell’s regime is over and the monarchy has been restored, but the fissures that divided the country have not disappeared, they’ve merely been papered over. There is no common ground between the Catholics and Protestants. Superstition is rife.
How does The Bloodless Boy conform with the traditional framework of a whodunnit? First, there’s a dead body, with evidence that the cause of death was not natural. There are questions that demand satisfaction: who wants the murder covered up? Who wants to pin the blame on someone else? Lastly, who stands to profit from the crime?
Harry Hunt is an independent hero, someone who displays feeling and emotion. When he sees the pitiful dead body of the young boy, he is greatly affected by a life cut short. As soon as he’s alone, he vomits. A few days later, he has terrible nightmares of drowning, struggling under the surface of the turbulent water.
The bloodless boy had some connection with the Wars fought more than a quarter of a century ago, before Harry had been born. At least, a cipher used then had resurfaced, as if pushed up through the snow with the body.
Who else knew of the Red Cipher? He should have quizzed Colonel Fields further. Did Sir Edmund have the keyword? Then why pass the letter left with the boy to Mr. Hooke? Sir Edmund suspected a Catholic involvement. Did he know more, or was it merely his dislike of popery that directed his thoughts?
Schooled by Robert Hooke to accept just the evidence of his senses, to examine first causes without trusting only the word of others, and to make trials for others to repeat and share, Harry’s intuition there was something more, something deeper to distrust about the Justice, stilled troubled him.
Harry’s intuition leads him to investigate independently. What he discovers alarms him, particularly when he finds out that Sir Edmund had been less than honest with him and Robert Hooke. Ultimately, Hooke and Hunt agree to investigate the murder of the boy after instruction from the King. The last thing King Charles II needs is an unsolved murder that has a connection to wars fought more than a quarter of a century ago. The Bloodless Boy juxtaposes a raw and gritty murder against the cautious, methodical scientific methods of the time. The murder investigation is intertwined with the political struggles of a turbulent age: it’s a fascinating read.