Though number seven in the John Shakespeare series, Holy Spy takes readers back to 1586 and the year that all the efforts to expose Mary Queen of Scots as a traitor to the throne of England came to a head – in the guise of the Babington plot. This well-documented by history plot was foolish and doomed to failure, not merely because Sir Francis Walsingham and his network of spies were aware of it from the outset, but also because of the young bucks at its heart and the spirit into which they entered into the deadly game of politics and assassinations. More interested in bravado and braggadocio and how they might be remembered by posterity than in how they were going to pull off their conspiracy to kill Elizabeth Ist, they were careless and far too open about their intentions, something which history notes as well and Clements explores with humanity and flair. I mean, how many serious killers would seek to have their portrait painted in commemoration of a deed they have not yet committed?
Assigned to infiltrate the Babington plotters, Shakespeare (fictional brother to William) must pose as a Catholic and watch and note the goings on of the men and report back to his masters, waiting for the moment when he must reveal that he has betrayed those he calls friends.
As is usual with a Clements’ book, Shakespeare also has a personal crisis running parallel to the national one in which he is heavily invested to prevent – in this novel, his former love, Kat, is accused of a planning a bloody and brutal murder – a claim the murderer himself, who faces death, make. He swears that Kat hired him to despatch her husband, Nick Giltspur. Fleeing the accusations, the beautiful but mercurial Kat, will be hunted down and put to death unless John can prove her innocence.
Moving between stately homes, smoky taverns, country halls, ships, the offices of Walsingham and other courtiers in Elizabeth’s various palaces as well as prisons, the novel is a rollicking great read, that evokes the era and beautifully denotes the personalities of the conspirators and other characters as well, giving names you read in history’s pages depth, breadth and managing to make readers pity their wild ideas, zeal and blind faith.
If you know that happens to the conspirators, then you know the outcome and Clements spares readers nothing. But it’s in the other plot, that surrounding Kat and the death of her husband, one of the wealthiest men in England that provides the real mystery and meat of the story. As is usual, nothing is as it seems and, in proving Kat’s innocence, Shakespeare runs the risk of exposing a much greater plot, one that those in power will do anything to protect…