Rory Clements has set this work of fiction against the backdrop of genuinely dark times for England. As the book opens it is 1587 and Queen Elizabeth is deciding whether or not to approve the execution of her treasonous cousin Mary, Queen of Scots while the Spanish armada is being assembled ready to invade the country. Clements has created a fictional older brother for playwright William Shakespeare as the hero of this novel. John Shakespeare is an investigator for Elizabeth’s Principal Secretary Francis Walsingham and is kept very busy. He must try to establish who killed Lady Howard, a young cousin of the Queen’s whose body was found in a burned out house and was defiled with what appear to be Catholic symbols. He must also find and stop the assassin who has been hired to kill Sir Francis Drake, the sea captain in whom is vested England’s hope for defeating the Spanish. All the while Shakespeare is hindered in his efforts by having to fight Richard Topcliffe, known (for good reason if the details of the book are even vaguely accurate) as Elizabeth’s principle torturer and whose particular interest was in capturing Catholic priests.
I’m not an expert on the Elizabethan period but the historical elements of this book certainly ring true which is enough for me to have thoroughly enjoyed it. Clements has used research, details (mostly of the ewwww-inducing kind) and just the right amount of period-specific language. In addition, fictional events and characters are interwoven with real ones with consummate skill and the result is a brilliant and far from romantic, depiction of a period full of violence, torture, religious persecution, war and the ever-present smell of excrement. As is the case with all the best historical fiction I was gripped with equal parts fascination and gratitude that I didn’t have to live through the reality.
I’m not sure that making the protagonist a fictional older brother of William Shakespeare added much value to the book (William appears only briefly) but as it didn’t detract either I’m open to seeing what he does with this aspect of the character in subsequent novels. Clements’ characters, whether entirely fictional or his interpretations of real people, do come to life and they are another highlight of the novel. John Shakespeare is a mostly likable young man (though occasionally a bit soppy for me) who is intelligent and at least has doubts about the more extreme methods his Queen approves of for dealing with Catholics. And Topcliffe is the perfect nemesis, being entirely devoid of humanity but very clever and having the support of the Queen so feeling free to indulge in all manner of torture. There are some marvellous minor characters including some amusing prostitutes and Shakespeare’s faithful, limping manservant who does a nice line in dry humour when he is tasked with guarding the irrepressible Sir Francis Drake.
On the crime fiction front I thought the book lacked a little oomph. The solving of the mystery of Lady Howard’s death was really quite straight forward and the hunt for the assassin was more of the swashbuckling thrills variety of story than a crime solving one and it did seem to go round in circles at times. But in the end this didn’t matter all that much as I was fascinated by the weaving of the fictional events into the historical backdrop and enjoyed the depiction of the interplay of politics and crime solving that I suspect doesn’t change much no matter what historical period we’re in. I would highly recommend the book to fans of historical fiction though you’ll need a strong stomach as the descriptions of the torture that was routinely carried out during these times is described in pretty graphic detail.
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I am now eagerly awaiting the arrival of Clement’s second John Shakespeare book, Revenger, on my doorstep. This book won the CWA Ellis Peters Award for historical fiction in 2010.
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My rating 4/5
Publisher John Murray [this edition 2010, original edition 2009]
Length 432 pages
Format trade paperback
Source I bought it