The Man in the Snow by Rory Clements

imgres-11For fans of Rory Clements’ work, The Man in the Snow is a cracking novella that sees intelligencer, John Shakespeare, trying to solve the mysterious death of an “Ethiop” and Venetian man who is found just a few days before Christmas, you guessed it, buried in the snow.

Summoned by his friend, the Searcher of the Dead, Joshua Peace, who we’ve come to know and love in other novels, Shakespeare understands that not only is the man’s death very suspicious, but also vicious. Discovering he was a friend of the Earl of Oxford, Shakespeare and the redoubtable Boltfoot set off to uncover the plots and cunning of desperate men – who lead double lives and for whom betrayal is as easy as breathing.

It wouldn’t be a John Shakespeare mystery if the odious Richard Topcliffe didn’t make an appearance, and of course, he does, with all his usual judgemental and vile flair.

Fast-paced, short but as always beautifully written and evoking the period with panache, this was a terrific and gripping read.

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Holy Spy by Rory Clements

imgres-12Though 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…

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The Heretics by Rory Clements

imgres-8The fifth book in the John Shakespeare series by Rory Clements, The Heretics, is quite a dark tale full of idolatry, superstition, exploitation and the vileness to which people will stoop to control others. Set seven years after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, it nonetheless opens as foreign galleons threaten the Cornwall coast (according to the excellent historical notes, this kind of things really happened after the Armada).

Enter, John Shakespeare stage right, who is asked to uncover whether this is a practice run or the beginnings of a new threat from the sea. Just as he sets his spy network in motion, one after the other, they’re found murdered. Dismayed and determined to track down the killer, John finds himself not only embroiled in finding the victims of exorcisms gone wrong, but driven north to visit the prison of the marshes, Wisbech Castle, and the priests incarcerated there.

In the meantime, Shakespeare’s children are under threat as is Boltfoot’s wife, Jane who has taken it upon herself to visit the highly sexed and unscrupulous, Dr Simon Forman.

From the fens to the playhouses of London and everything in between, John has his work cut out for him, especially when, as usual, those who should be working with him, level against him, making his job that much harder and his employer less sympathetic.

A bleak instalment that is still a great read, even if some of the conditions described and real characters from history and events explored are difficult for modern readers to stomach. Exploring issues of faith, exploitation, internment, war, torture, women, superstition, women and marriage, quite a few stones are overturned and then some. The power of Clements’ writing is in his ability to not only meld fact and fiction but in a way that is at once poetic and striking. He brings the era to rollicking life – in all its ugly glory – crafting a splendid novel in the process.


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Prince by Rory Clements

imgres-9Prince is the third book in the John Shakespeare series by Rory Clements and, once again, he has crafted a marvellous tale that takes the reader by the scruff of the neck (or scruff of the ruff) and plonks her or him right down in the middle of Elizabethan England.

It is 1593. Elizabeth is sixty years old and losing grip on her glorious empire. Plague is rife in the streets of London as is discontent, poverty and brooding violence. There are plots to rid England of the heretical queen hatching everywhere. Among these are violent plans to disrupt the peace by instilling fear; fear based on xenophobia and a belief that recent Dutch immigrants are stealing the livelihoods of good Englishmen and more.

Before John Shakespeare can start his new investigation, one that will see him embroiled in his brother’s world of theatre, with Spanish dignitaries and high-class whores, Richard Topcliffe and his foul practices, personal tragedy strikes.

John’s world is literally blown apart and throughout the book he struggles to come to terms with his new life and what his loss means for him and the future.

But just when he thought he could lose no more, a greater threat strikes and unless John can pull himself together and uncover what’s happening beneath everyone’s noses, then more than a few lives are at stake, but the welfare of the entire realm.

Once again, Clements writes to such a high standard, crafting a wonderful intricate plot, mingling fictional characters with real and bringing to life a period that continues to appal, fascinate and charm.

Fabulous read and, as usual, I went straight to the next one in the series!



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Revenger (John Shakespeare #2) by Rory Clements

urlThe second book in the John Shakespeare series, Revenger, is a terrific and taut addition to what’s fast becoming one of my favourite Elizabethan series.

While the first book was set in 1587, this one moves ahead five years in time to 1592. Sir Francis Walsingham has been dead two years, the Spanish Armada defeated in 1588 and the Earl of Leicester, the queen’s favourite, dead four years. Two groups of people now contest the reigns of power, headed by two men who loathe each other: the Earl of Essex on one side and Robert Cecil on the other. These men are ones that John Shakespeare, retired from spying and now a schoolmaster, hopes never to have to deal with again – or so he claims.

Summoned by Cecil to not only solve the mystery of a young woman from a missing colony in the New World who has suddenly appeared on English shores, as well as find papers the Earl of Essex has upon his person and intends to use to bribe the queen, and solve the death of two young lovers at a wedding, John, along with the loyal and able Boltfoot Cooper, is dragged back into intelligencing.

Forced to confront old enemies and make some new deadly ones, John is nothing if not persistent.

In the meantime, his marriage to Catholic Catherine is falling apart as he struggles with her Papist tendencies and the danger it poses for not just his beloved wife, but their whole family. How can he protect them when England needs him too?

And, watching and waiting in the wings to pounce, is the psychopathic Richard Topcliffe who would like nothing better than to slowly and tortuously kill both John and his beautiful wife.

But when John uncovers the extent of the plot that’s brewing and understands the players involved, he realises the queen is facing the biggest threat to her safety yet. Only, exactly who poses the biggest threat isn’t yet clear for there are those claiming to be working for her that seem to have their own interests at heart, interests that if curtailed pose great danger to not just the realm, but John and his family.

Once more, Clements captures the era authentically and with a storyteller’s flair. The plot is fast-paced, the writing wonderful and the characters believable. Sometimes compared to C.J. Sansom (my absolute favourite Tudor historical fiction writer – his books are brilliant) and the Shardlake series, I’m not convinced the unfavourable comparisons are fair or accurate. For a start, the Shardlake books are set during Henry’s reign, Shardlake is a lawyer and the entire tone and pace is very different to what Clement offers.

I enjoy both series, which though set a few decades apart, reflect the eras they explore with accuracy and beauty, demonstrating that from one generation to the next there were huge ideological and social changes affecting and defining England and its people.

I think both writers do their chosen material great justice and bring so much pleasure to readers.

Again, I finished Revenger and moved straight on to the next in the series, Prince. A terrific read.

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