"The Royal Burgh" is Steven Veerapen's second book to feature Simon Danforth, aide to Cardinal Beaton, and his friend and fellow aide Arnaud Martin. Set it 1543, against the background of the recent death of King James V and the resulting turmoil sweeping Scotland. Danforth and Arnaud, in refusing to act upon the Cardinal's wishes, find themselves out of favour with their master and dismissed from his inner circle. As tensions spill out onto the streets of Edinburgh, Danforth feels increasingly isolated, as he has also crossed words with Martin and they are no longer speaking. However, whilst Danforth mulls over breaking the silence between them, Martin makes the first approach, and the pair put past differences behind them and make their peace.
Meantime Cardinal Beaton is taken into captivity and two separate incidents directed against Danforth - first his being verbally challenged in the streets close to his home and second his garden being ransacked - prompt the pair to head away from the discontent in Edinburgh towards Stirling, in the hope they might find peace there with Martin's family. But instead, they find murder. A young gentlewoman is found brutally beaten to death in her own home. A couple of strange objects are left at the scene, which Danforth feels must offer clues to her demise, and he and Martin find themselves drawn into the pursuit of a shadowy killer, whose identity seems to be shrouded in secrecy. They find themselves up against a private army of enforcers who, at all points, seem to be protecting the identity of the killer in order to also protect themselves. Tensions rise, as the progress of their investigation leads them the doctor who Martin blames for the death of his sister the previous year. As well as catching his killer, Danforth now feels the added pressure of protecting his friend from taking revenge against the doctor and turning his own hand to murder.
"The Royal Burgh" is a very satisfying read. Following on from "The Abbey Close", Veerapens' first novel, where we were meeting Danforth and Martin for the first time, the main characters fit comfortably into their environment from the start. The descriptions of Edinburgh and of Stirling paint a credible picture of life at the time, with the reader getting a real sense of the day to day lives of the inhabitants as they go about their business and of the ensuing sights and sounds. The reader also gets a real sense of the fear and distrust that builds, as Danforth and Martin seek answers in the darker quarters of the town and from people with whom neither man is comfortable. Most satisfying of all is that at no point is the ending of "The Royal Burgh" predictable, as a number of possible perpetrators are identified and eventually dismissed as we are led finally to our killer and the conclusion of the book.