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Friday, February 8, 2013

Martyr. Rory Clements. John Murray (2009)

This is a very enjoyable and engaging historical crime story where the context is considerably more than a colorful backdrop. In 1587 in London, John Shakespeare who works for Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I's spy master, is called to a murder scene. The victim is a cousin of the Queen and there is a strong suggestion that the death has a connection with the Catholic opposition to the Queen. Richard Topcliffe, a very dangerous and powerful man with a professional and personal mission to destroy the Catholic threat is also involved in the case. When Walsingham receives credible information about a plot against Sir Francis Drake, Shakespeare is given the task of protecting Drake from the assassin. The story splinters the narrative across a large cast as the plot threads are cunningly drawn together in a very satisfactory way. The reveals are cunningly staged, the action set pieces are smart and sharp, the conclusion nicely mixes losses and gains.
For any historical thriller the relationship between the plot and the context is critical and in this case the connection is natural and compelling. Protestant England was rife with rumor and plots as the greatest superpower of the age, Spain, was its sworn enemy. There were significant numbers of the population who still professed the Catholic faith and they had a direct conflict between their faith and their loyalty to the government of England. This conflict was consistently exploited by forces on both sides as they sought to force the choice for one side or another, ambiguity was deadly. The relevance to contemporary politics is clear and it gives the story a sharp edge which is never overstated by Rory Clements. The actions of the cast are stitched carefully into the fabric of the times, their choices are informed clearly and fully by their circumstances, there is no imposition of a 21st Century world view on the cast.
The cast themselves are engaging, vivid and full of life. John Shakespeare, brother of  William, is a dedicated and very competent officer of Walsingham's secret service. He his not afraid to use the brutal methods of the time to get what he needs, he does not indulge in cruelty. Richard Topcliffe, the Queens's torturer and hunter of subversives is a driven man who has a dash of personal relish in his work which makes him very dangerous. There are a host of characters with lesser roles , each of them is given the space and time to emerge clearly and they  give the narrative colour and depth. Naturally William Shakespeare himself makes and appearance and it is a tribute to the skill and control Rory Clements has used that the appearance is clever, relevant and unobtrusive, it does not feel like a guest cameo by a well known face.
The plot mechanics are enjoyably complicated and diverse, the sub-plots are worth the time they are given, they push and pull the cast in engaging ways without ever distracting or undermining the central thrust of the story. With a excellent balance between cast and plot this is a gripping read.
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