It isn't everyday that I come across a novel that wins my respect and earns a firmly favorable appraisal after a somewhat shaky start. Well,'Traitor's Field' is one of those novels with a cast of characters, who, as the novel progresses, surprise the reader through their (at times, startling) actions and range of emotions amid shifting canvases.
The novel begins with the discovery, in the present era, of a cache of letters from an agent of the Parliamentary cause in 17th century England (known as The Thurloe State Papers) which had been missing for 309 years. Found with this cache was a letter (written in 1701) from an Anglican minister to a friend with goverment connections, seeking his help in ascertaining the value of those letters. This is the introduction, which quickly transports the reader back to 1648 England amid the detritus of war on a battlefield as a new day begins to make itself felt. Everywhere there are the dead and dying (both horses and men), discarded weaponry, the cries and moans of the wounded, survivors on the run harried by elements of the victorious Parliamentary Army (afoot and on horseback) --- and one man, haggard, tired, middle-aged, who stealthily extricates himself from the field, finding shelter under the trees in the distance. His name is Sir Mortimer Shay, a veteran soldier of many a war across Europe, and devoted to the Royalist cause.
As the novel progresses, Shay is shown to be very shrewd and resourceful, a keen observer and astute judge of men. The England in which he finds himself is convulsed in civil war and full of duplicitous and dangerous people. The Royalists are on the brink of defeat, with their King a prisoner, soon to be put on trial for treason.
Yet, though the Parliamentary forces (under the leadership of the skilled and saavy politician-general Oliver Cromwell) are close to victory, there are divisions within their own camp which Shay seeks to exploit.
Shay has all the attributes of the consummate warrior-spymaster. For 3 years (from 1648 to 1651), via a close network of contacts across England (extending also into Ireland and Scotland), he manages to keep the Parliamentary forces off-balance, always managing to keep one step ahead. Then enters John Thurloe, a young scholarly type in Cromwell's service, who --- along with a couple of colleagues (who hold Thurloe in low regard) --- sets about trying to break the Royalist codes and thus, gain access to their spy network, and destroy it.
A protracted contest of wills ensues between Shay and Thurloe as Royalist fortunes go from bad to worse as Cromwell tightens his hold over Britain. The novel's resolution, when it comes, is shocking and earth-shattering, illustrating the ill-effects of a civll war among townspeople and peasants alike. Put all those elements together in a well-crafted story (as this novel proves itself to be), and you have a WINNER. That's why I gave 'TRAITOR'S FIELD' 5 stars.