The latest comic novel from Christopher Buckley, in which a hapless Englishman embarks on a dangerous mission to the New World in pursuit of two judges who helped murder a king.
London, 1664. Twenty years after the English revolution, the monarchy has been restored and Charles II sits on the throne. The men who conspired to kill his father are either dead or disappeared. Baltasar “Balty” St. Michel is twenty-four and has no skills and no employment. He gets by on handouts from his brother-in-law Samuel Pepys, an officer in the king’s navy.
Fed up with his needy relative, Pepys offers Balty a job in the New World. He is to track down two missing judges who were responsible for the execution of the last king, Charles I. When Balty’s ship arrives in Boston, he finds a strange country filled with fundamentalist Puritans, saintly Quakers, warring tribes of Indians, and rogues of every stripe. Helped by a man named Huncks, an agent of the Crown with a mysterious past, Balty travels colonial America in search of the missing judges. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Samuel Pepys prepares for a war with the Dutch that fears England has no chance of winning.
Christopher Buckley’s enchanting new novel spins adventure, comedy, political intrigue, and romance against a historical backdrop with real-life characters like Charles II, John Winthrop, and Peter Stuyvesant. Buckley’s wit is as sharp as ever as he takes readers to seventeenth-century London and New England. We visit the bawdy court of Charles II, Boston under the strict Puritan rule, and New Amsterdam back when Manhattan was a half-wild outpost on the edge of an unmapped continent. The Judge Hunter is a smart and swiftly plotted novel that transports readers to a new world.
The Judge Hunter – CHAPTER 1 – London, February 1664 Balthasar de St. Michel was contemplating his excellent good fortune at having such an influential brother-in-law as Samuel Pepys when he looked up and saw the head of Oliver Cromwell, mummifying on a pike. Revolting, he thought.
It had been there for—what—three years now? When the late king’s son, Charles II, was restored to the throne, he ordered the moldering corpses of his father’s executioners dug up, hanged, and decapitated. “Symbolic revenge.” Ten of the fifty-nine men who signed the King’s death warrant were rather less fortunate than Cromwell. They got hanged and butchered while alive.
Balthasar shuddered and moved briskly along to his destination, the Navy Office in Seething Lane, a busy warren near the Tower of London.
“Brother Sam!” he said with a heartiness suggesting it was a social call.
Samuel Pepys, Clerk of the Acts of the Royal Navy, looked up from his desk. His face did not convey delight. He knew from experience that this was not a social call.
“Brother Balty. I fear you find me much occupied.”
“I was passing by. Thought to stick my head in. Say hello.”
“Good of you,” Pepys said heavily.
“What’s the commotion?” Balty said, looking out the window at the bustle in the courtyard below.
“Meetings. So as you see, I am somewhat—”
“Say, how long are they going to leave Cromwell’s head on that pike?”
Pepys sighed. “I wouldn’t know. For as long as it pleases his majesty, I expect.”
“Yes, I imagine that’s rather the point.”
“Weren’t you present when they”—Balty made a chopping motion—“lopped off the king’s head?”
“Yes. I was sixteen. Played truant from school. And was well whipped for it. Now if you’ll—”
“Didn’t you also see the execution of the first of the regicides? What’s his name . . . Harrison?”
“Yes. Well, good of you to—”
“Must have been ghastly. Hanging, disemboweling, cutting off the privy parts. Then—”
“Yes, Balty. It was horrid. So much so that I endeavor not to dwell upon it.”
“People will suspect you’ve a penchant for gruesome entertainments.” He pronounced the word in the French way, himself being half French. Balty and his sister, Pepys’s wife, had the tendency to lapse into their father’s native tongue.
“My penchant, Balty, is to be witness at great events. I do not attend only executions. I remind you that I was aboard the ship that brought his majesty back to England from Holland four years ago.”
Pepys did not mention—to Balty or anyone, for that matter—the diary he’d been keeping since 1660. He wrote it in a shorthand decipherable only to himself, so that he could tell it all.
“Well, good to see you,” Pepys said. “Do give Esther my love.”
Esther was Balty’s wife of two years, and the latest addition to the growing number of mouths it fell to Pepys to feed. His rise within the Navy Office had barely kept pace with the proliferation of impoverished relatives.
Balty’s father, Alexandre, had been a prosperous if minor member of the French aristocracy, Gentleman Ordinary to the great King Henri IV. He was in charge of the King’s Guard on that dreadful spring day in 1610 when his majesty was driven in an open carriage through the Tuileries. The guards lagged behind, preening for the ladies in the crowd. The fanatical Catholic François Ravaillac saw his opening and lunged, sinking his sword into the King. The King died quickly. Ravaillac’s death was a more prolonged affair.
According to St. Michel family lore, never entirely reliable, Alexandre redeemed himself some years later when he plucked Henri’s drowning son, King Louis XIII, from a pond after his horse threw him during an excited hare hunt. Thus he could claim the unique distinction of having got one king killed and another saved. A series of disastrous decisions had reduced him to his present station here in London, taking out patents for various inventions. One supposedly fixed leaky chimneys. It did not. Another was a device that rendered pond water fit for horses to drink. The horses died.
The proverbial apple did fall far from the tree. At twenty-four, Balthasar could claim no achievements, nor was there any indication of ones to come. The word “feckless” might have been coined to describe Balty. But his older sister Elizabeth, Pepys’s wife, adored him and doted on him. For her, Balty could do no wrong. Pepys fumed that he could do no right. Pepys loved his wife, though fidelity was not chief among his qualities. And so it fell to Sam, again and again, to provide money and employment for his pointless, impecunious brother-in-law.
“As to Esther,” Balty responded in a merry, conspiratorial tone, “we have news. We are with child.”
This stung. Pepys and his wife had been trying for ten years to produce a child. Sam was more and more convinced that the hellish operation he endured to cut out his kidney stone had rendered him incapable. Elizabeth meanwhile was plagued by feminine cysts. God himself seemed against them.
“Well, Balty,” Pepys said, forcing a wistful smile, “that is news. I am glad. Heartily glad. Bess will be very pleased to hear of it.”
“That is, we might be with child.” Balty threw up his hands to show his frustration at the impenetrable mysteries of conception. “I suppose we’ll know at some point.”
Pepys frowned. “Yes, I expect so. Now you really must excuse me. I’ve a great deal to do.”
A clatter of hooves and carriage wheels came from the courtyard. Balty peered down. “A personage of significance arrives. Very lush carriage.”
Balty considered. “Downing . . .”
“Sir George Downing.”
Balty made a disapproving face. “What, the one who lured his former comrades into a trap and got them butchered? Bloody Judas.”
Pepys said sternly, “Have a care with your tongue, Balty. And for my position here.”
“But surely you can’t approve of such a man as that? It was monstrous, what he did. Perfidy of the lowest—”
“Yes, Balty. We all know what he did. For which service the King created him baronet. Those he lured were among the men who’d condemned the King’s own father. Try to bear that in mind, amidst your deprecations.”
“I find him despicable. Honteux.”
Pepys agreed with his brother-in-law. Privately. He confined his own indignation about Downing—“perfidious rogue,” “ungrateful villain”—to his diary.
“Downing is Envoy at The Hague. And the King’s spymaster. He’s a powerful man, Balty. I’d urge you to keep that in mind before you go emptying your spleen in public houses. His lordship’s not someone you want for an enemy.”
“I shouldn’t want him for a friend.” Balty sniffed. “Not after what he did to his.”
“Well, what a pity,” Pepys said with a touch of pique. “I was about to suggest the three of us take tea together. Now really, Balty, I must say good day to you.”
Balty took a few steps toward the door.
“Might you have something for me? A position?”
“A position? Well, yes. I could arrange a position for you today. Aboard one of our ships.”
“Sam. You know I’m no good on ships. They make me ill. Even when they’re not moving.”
“This is the Navy Office, Balty. Ships are what we are about.”
“Couldn’t I be your aide-de-camp? Or subaltern, or whatever they’re called in the Navy. Here. On land.”
“Balty, I say this with the deepest affection—you have no qualifications. None. You have not one scintilla of qualification for Navy work.” Or any other kind, he thought.
Pepys regarded the specimen of aimlessness who stood before him. He knew what scene would greet him at home tonight—his wife berating him, either with icy silence or volcanic eruption. Elizabeth, being half French, was capable of both modes. It wasn’t fair. Again and again, Pepys had done what he could for Balty, usually in the form of “loans.”
“There might be something in Deptford, at the dockyards. Let me make some inquiries.”
“Oh, bravo. Thank you.” Balty added, “Nothing too menial.”
“I’m told I’ve got rather a good head on my shoulders,” Balty said. “No sense wasting it putting me to work hefting sacks of gunpowder and dry biscuit all day. Eh?”
Pepys inwardly groaned, but his desire to be rid of Balty was greater than his temptation to box his ears. “I’ll make inquiries.” Pepys rubbed his forehead in exasperation.
“Valerian,” Balty said.
“Valerian. The herb. They call it the Phew Plant. On account of the stink.” Balty pinched his nose. “But there’s nothing better for headache. Or the colic.”
“Thank you. But I have my hare’s foot for that.”
“Cures flatulence, too.”
Pepys sighed and pointed to the door. “Go, Balty.”
Christopher Buckley is a novelist, essayist, humorist, critic, magazine editor, and memoirist. His books include Thank You for Smoking, The Judge Hunter, Make Russia Great Again, and The Relic Master. He worked as a merchant seaman and White House speechwriter. He has written for many newspapers and magazines and has lectured in over seventy cities around the world. He was awarded the Thurber Prize for American Humor and the Washington Irving Medal for Literary Excellence.
"It’s murder and mirth in Christopher Buckley’s The Judge Hunter." —Vanity Fair
"An entertaining and nicely crafted picaresque thriller with crackling dialogue and a brace of Colonial cops as appealingly mismatched as any of Hollywood's buddy efforts." —Kirkus Reviews
"Christopher Buckley’s style of satire has a peculiar bite: It nibbles, nibbles, nibbles—gently, even delightfully—before chomping down and leaving teeth marks as distinctive as any known to forensic science....The Judge Hunter is a brisk adventure....Buckley’s signature wordplay transposes well to 17th-century England and America, and anyone familiar with the real Pepys will take special pleasure in Buckley’s pitch-perfect fictional diary entries for him....the point of the thing is in the adventure and in the glimpses of a past that is distant but familiar, not only because of the names that still resonate three centuries on but because all the manners of stupidity and greed, intrigue and intrepidity he describes are still very much with us today." —The Weekly Standard
"Christopher Buckley fans and newcomers to his work will delight in this humorous historical novel." —Bookish
"A wry, witty, enjoyable romp....With an almost British, Monty Python–esque dryness, Buckley traipses through the American Colonies and skewers the foibles of the inhabitants....Buckley cleverly weaves his story line with historical threads taken from Pepys diaries and other notes from the Colonial period." —Library Journal
"Buckley (The Relic Master) has turned his quick wit and sharp writing focus on the 17th century in this 2nd book in his historical fiction series....Peppered with historical characters—Peter Stuyvesant, John Winthrop II—and cleverly using Samuel Pepys’ famous diaries, Buckley masterfully weaves a fictional story with historical fact....a rich story ripe for Buckley’s humor and pointed satire on Puritan ideals, royal peccadillos, and political intrigue. The Judge Hunter is an absorbing mystery/thriller with humorous dialog and characters that resonate and draw in the reader. Buckley’s ability to fuse fact with fiction makes this book a must for not just fans of historical fiction but anyone looking for a great read." —Historical Novels Review
"The Judge Hunter is a captivating and witty new novel that combines adventure, comedy, political intrigue, and romance around real-life historical characters....Buckley has a razor-sharp wit....[a] brilliantly plotted historical novel that is extraordinarily entertaining. You will not stop laughing as you read it." —Washington Book Review
"Wildly satisfying and funny...The Judge Hunter is a satisfying romp through America in the 1600s." —Washington Independent Review of Books
"Buckley's wry wit is on display throughout....the characters and events of the period covered in The Judge Hunter offer a trove of material. While it's handled lightly, like any good historical fiction the book sparks the reader's interest in learning more about the events and people it touches on. Carefully researched and constructed with a wealth of authentic details, the novel succeeds in making a sometimes distant and stodgy-seeming era feel somehow contemporary." —National Review
"In these days of nasty name-calling passing as humor there is thankfully one true practitioner of the literary art of satire still standing, and Christopher Buckley’s second historical novel proves it. The Judge Hunter is full of humor that skewers historical figures in all their self-serving political ambitions....Buckley’s humorous satire...is both revealing of painful truths and the timelessness of bad human behavior." —New York Journal of Books