A fabulous, well-paced historical crime book set during the latter years of Elizabeth’s reign (it opens in 1587), a time when conspiracies abounded, suspicions towards Catholics and fears for Elizabeth’s life were rife in a country still trying to lay firm Protestant foundations. This was an era when paranoia was alive and well (and often with good reason) and Mister Secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham and his spies or intelligencers played a significant role in shoring up the safety of the land and its monarch.
Enter John Shakespeare, brother to William and a clever, generous and handsome bloke to boot, who is recruited into Walsingham’s network. Between the brutal murder of one of the queen’s cousins in a burnt out house on London Bridge and a plot to assassinate Sir Francis Drake, John has his work cut out. Alongside all this, King Philip and his armada threatens, Mary Stuart is poised for execution, while Jesuit priests walk the streets, harvesting English souls, evading capture by hiding in the houses of Catholic sympathisers.
Tasked with discovering Drake’s would-be assassin, the killer of the queen’s cousin and the recusants hiding the Jesuits, Shakespeare is forced to confront his own beliefs, his heart’s desire and the fears and realities of both Protestants and Catholics alike.
Watching his every move but always seeming to be one step ahead is the awful character of Richard Topcliffe who, in real life, was known to be a blood-thirsty sociopath with a genuine love for torture. His name alone was enough to cast a long and horrifying shadow – and if you read books on the torture of the time and what this man did, it still will…
Topcliffe knows John has secrets, secrets that could undermine his position, family and his life. But when the assassin and Topcliffe start to threaten those John has grown to love, the stakes become even higher.
I thoroughly enjoyed what at times is a very, very gory book that doesn’t hold back from the shocking realities of Elizabethan life for the men and poor women who were held in thrall by violent, powerful people. The constant pressure brought to bear on Catholics and the religious schism that existed at the time is painful to read, but also reflects what was again a reality for many folk.
In some reviews I’ve read, readers’ criticise Clement, the author, for giving his hero what they term “modern religious sensibilities”, meaning, I think, a tolerance for both sides of the religious divide. The historical facts record that just like in any period, while there were fundamentalists and those who truly believed their soul was at stake if they adhered to a different set of religious principles, there were also those very tolerant and even ambivalent about specific religious practices, even if they never doubted God. This period was not as black and white as many other writers of the era make out, so in that regard, I think Clement has done something very original and interesting with John Shakespeare and the other characters who populate this book. Certainly, his evocation of the era is outstanding and his use of language rich and fruity.
I really enjoyed this book and upon finishing it, immediately commenced the next in the series.