Book Review: Treachery by S.J. Parris

The fourth book in the Giordano Bruno series, Treachery, takes place in Plymouth, on the eve of Sir Francis Drake’s departure to harass Spanish ports. Accompanying his friend, Sir Phillip Sidney, who is tasked by the queen with bringing the exiled Portuguese ruler safely to London, Bruno, as readers have come to expect, stumbles into murder, conspiracies and, as the title suggests, treachery. Upon his arrival, Bruno learns that one of Drake’s officers has committed suicide, though after one look at the body, Bruno is able to confirm Drake’s suspicions, that his man didn’t take his own life, but was brutally murdered. Sidney (who has his own selfish reasons for wanting to earn the gratitude of Drake) quickly offers Bruno’s services to track down the killer.

Amid the grubby, bustling port town of Plymouth, more than one conspiracy emerges and Bruno meets some unpleasant people from his past – as does Drake – men intent on revenge at all costs. Hounded, hunted, second-guessed, watched, Bruno works against time and the evil intentions of others, all the while keeping an amorous woman at arm’s length and trying to discovery the mysteries of yet another heretical book.

Parris’s evocation of the time and place is terrific. For regular readers of the series, Bruno is such a fully realised character and the more you see him in action, the more you appreciate his humour, learning and (mostly) abundance of common sense. Sidney is given more time in this novel and his character is given the opportunity to, well, not shine, let’s say show its strengths and weaknesses. Likewise, one of the heroes of the Renaissance, Sir Francis Drake, is well drawn.


In terms of plot, the books follow a pattern: Bruno encounters death, bodies and plots and seeks to solve the conundrums they raise and offset the danger they pose to himself and others. Risking life and limb, he moves or blunders from clue to clue, being attracted to a woman, finally uncovering the identity of the killer/plot and saving the day (but not without a body count and a few victims). I don’t mind the fact that as a reader, I sort of know what’s going to happen. There’s a particular pleasure in knowing the rhythms and cadences of a series and part of the delight, even when you pick the identity of the antagonist (as I did early in this book), is discovering how the author uncoils the story. What Parris does very well is the interior life and motivation of characters, particularly Bruno and this is never predictable except in ways that ring true with the overall narrative arc and character development.

There are many twists and wrong turns in this novel as well as sub-plots and minor characters which all work to feature Bruno’s particular skills and attractions. Far more than the other novels, in Treachery, Bruno becomes a sort of Renaissance super-hero – sans costume – as faster than a speeding bullet from a blunderbuss and more powerful than a horse drawn carriage, he risks himself physically and in astonishing and dangerous situations again and again. Being a philosopher has never been so deadly or thrilling. Be prepared to suspend your disbelief, but not your reading pleasure.

A wonderful addition to a really good series.


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Book Review: The Queen’s Agent by John Cooper

This marvellous book, The Queen’s Agent, by John Cooper, while ostensibly a biography of one of the hardest working men in Elizabethan government, Sir Francis Walsingham, is also a tale about espionage and counter-espionage, war, religious conflict, suspicion, betrayal, stupidity and cleverness, during the reign of Elizabeth the First.

Coming to the throne amidst religious, international and other turmoil, Elizabeth, as a single woman, was perceived by many as an easy target for unscrupulous deals – at their peril, as it happened. But while Elizabeth presented a relatively calm face to various threats – real and imagined – as well as marriage proposals and grumblings from the Commons and the Privy Council, working furiously behind the scenes to ensure stability and the removal of any danger, was Walsingham, Lord Burghley and a host of secret agents. These were recruited and posted across England and Europe – most of whom Walsingham personally chose for the skills and connections they possessed and which he could use for the benefit of queen and country.

Cooper’s biography allows access to a man who is sometimes, in a dash of over enthusiasm as it turns out, credited as being the father of MI5 and MI6. Reading the book, however, doesn’t make it seem the exaggeration Cooper professes it to be, as Walsingham, with varying degrees of success, ran agents, double-agents, invented and broke ciphers, used invisible inkThe Queen's Agent: Francis Walsingham at the Court of Elizabeth I, colluded with adversaries, and was not above converting enemy spies – either through gentle but deadly coercion and bribes or torture.

A staunch Protestant, Walsingham was able to reconcile the brutality he sometimes resorted to with his beliefs as he saw Catholicism as a stain on the country and, indeed, the world, which must be wiped out at any cost.

Playing various roles throughout his career, we learn that while a young man he escaped England during Mary’s reign and resided briefly in Padua and then in Basel, both times being exposed and responding to the kind of Protestantism he later endorsed. A diplomat, he was multi-lingual, clever, extraordinarily hard-working and, as is often the way with people who are workaholics, prone to illness. But it’s as Elizabeth’s Secretary of State and “spymaster” that he’s probably best remembered.

That’s partly because there isn’t a great deal known about his personal life as papers that might have given us insight were destroyed and it’s to Cooper’s credit that in the telling of Walsingham’s career and professional relationships, we are given sense of the man. Upright, uptight and not always faultless, he was a conspiracy theorist par excellence – I couldn’t help but think that he and Fox Mulder or Carrie from Homeland would have got along famously J. Connected by family to other well-known names and personalities of the period, his one daughter, Frances, married first Philip Sidney and later, the charming but doomed Earl of Essex. He lived long enough to see that union made, but not, fortunately, the end it met.

Involved in many an effort to find a suitable husband for his liege, Walsingham was also behind efforts to dissuade her from less than popular matches – such as with the Duke of Anjou. What I didn’t know about was Walsingham’s keen involvement in England’s explorations of the New World, his interest in expanding west and establishing colonies there. An entire chapter is dedicated to the often futile attempts to establish colonies on what would become American soil and while Walsingham doesn’t feature strongly here, his mark is evident.

Working side by side with Lord Burghley (William Cecil), with whom he often disagreed with, Walsingham always tried to put his monarch and country first. Responsible for uncovering many treasonous plots against Elizabeth, including Mary, Queen of Scott’s collusion in the most well-known of all, the Babington plot, he fell in and out of favour with the Queen. Unlike his peer, Burghley, Walsingham did not garner riches for his diligence and determination to root out all popery and assassination attempts; to protect Britannia. On the contrary, when he died, he had little materially to leave his second and beloved wife, Ursula, as not only did he take on the debt of his dead son-in-law, Philip Sidney, but also he often used his own monies to ensure the flow of information and thus the knowledge network he built was maintained.

Preferring to dress in black, dour of face and loyal in faith, and to her majesty, though he often bemoaned her sex and the foibles and idiosyncratic  behaviours he felt came with it, Walsingham cuts a mysterious figure.

Cooper, with all the revelations and wonderful information he provides, still maintains this sense of secrecy, adding a particular frisson to the book. I loved this about it – quotes from Walsingham’s letters and first hand reports about the Secretary of State conceal as much as they reveal and though Cooper offers analyses of the psychology of the man, he also allows our imaginations and interpretations room to manoeuvre.

Wonderfully written, Cooper conveys the period and the threats that were faced, all the while balancing them against the benefit of hindsight and another version of historical reality. Impeccably researched and eruditely presented, this book is a must for history buffs and those who love to know more about the machinations behind the throne of one of the most colourful monarchs in English history.

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