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Book Review: Revenger

Revenger: A Novel of Tudor Intrigue

by Rory Clements

Bantam, 2011

In the sequel to his irresistible debut Martyr, Rory Clements now gives us Revenger, the second adventure featuring the Shakespeare you’ve never heard of: not William, the famous playwright, but his older brother John. In Clements’ unbeatable conceit, this mythical Shakespeare sibling worked for nine years in the employ of Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster while his younger brother was struggling to make ends meet as a poet and player; by deciding not to have William be his protagonist, Clements neatly side-steps the bottomless quagmire of Shakespeare-studies in favor of free invention – and his John Shakespeare is an interesting creation, reserved, phlegmatic, blandly capable. He’s married to a fiery-tempered wife who must keep her Catholicism a secret, and in the five years that have passed since the events of Martyr (a corker of a story involving Francis Drake), husband and wife have been running a school for boys and very much staying away from court intrigues.

That all changes one hot summer day when court intrigues come looking for John Shakespeare. Two henchmen of the Queen’s celebrated favorite, the Earl of Essex (here rather oddly described as standing six-foot-four or so) bring Shakespeare to a quick conference that has about as evocative a subject as you can get: the lost colony of Roanoke. Essex and Shakespeare helpfully rehearse the details aloud, for readers who were drowsing that day in English History – colonists sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh (including Virginia Dare, the first white baby born in the New World), begin a settlement on Roanoke Island off the coast of North Carolina in 1587. Their leader, John White (little Virginia’s grandfather), sails back to England to fetch badly-needed supplies, promising to return immediately. But the Spanish Armada throws a wrench into his plans, and it’s three years before he can return – at which point he finds no trace of the colony or its inhabitants, except for the scrawled word “Croatoan.”

The bombshell Essex has for Shakespeare? Just recently, one of those lost colonists was spotted alive and well, wandering in London. Essex wants Shakespeare to return to the “intelligencer” work he left five years ago and find this person. One of Essex’s henchmen later explains that since the Earl and Raleigh would like nothing more than to “stick branding irons up each other’s arses,” Essex probably wants to embarrass Raleigh. Shakespeare is told in no uncertain terms that his task is not a request but an order – that Essex wants, Essex gets.

This would be disturbing enough for a man who was mostly relishing the sedate comforts of life outside Walsingham’s employ (Clements is good at showing Shakespeare’s ambivalence on this point), but the next day things get even more complicated: our hero is summoned by yet another great power in Elizabeth’s court:

Sir Robert Cecil was in the Privy Garden to the north of the house, where the heat was less intense and the plants had been watered. Shakespeare was struck at once by how small and neat and still Cecil was; an extraordinary contrast to Essex, the bustling giant of a man he had met a day earlier. He stood, almost statue-like, on the beautifully sheltered lawn, its borders bursting with flowers.

Cecil (“a man made in miniature, like one of Master Hilliard’s delicate little paintings”) fears Essex is plotting to marry Lady Arbella Stewart and position himself as next in line to the throne, and he wants Shakespeare to pretend to pursue the Roanoke matter so that he’s in a position to spy on Essex. There’s threat of Spanish assassins, there’s a new Pope in Rome, somebody has stolen all of Walsingham’s old espionage papers … in short, Clements isn’t shy in his desire to hook his readers and keep them hooked.

It all works just wonderfully. By swift, sure measures we are brought shoulder-deep into all the intricacies of late-16th century England, and yet the narrative never feels top-heavy with exposition, and the action moves swiftly along, and the climax – including a thrilling moment worthy of Ngaio Marsh and featuring exactly the right allegedly-lost figure from history – is very assuredly done. And through it all, Clements quietly, adeptly draws a picture of this elder Shakespeare who is, in his own way, every bit as observant as his famous younger brother, and every bit as good at disappearing into the background:

Shakespeare took his leave of Starling Day and walked the short distance home to Dowgate to fetch his horse, sure all the while that he was watched. Another man might have felt intimidated, but you could not work in a world of secrets and be too concerned by such things. Shakespeare knew how to spot the observer who wished to remain unseen: the shadow on the wall that stopped when you stopped, the figure in the crowd that did not quite flow with the surging of the mass, the face that was cowled despite the warmth of the day. More importantly, Shakespeare knew, too, how to lose the watcher when it became necessary.

As is the case with so many first-rate mystery debuts (even Open Letters Weekly and the redoubtable Irma Heldman can only cover so much ground!), Martyr flew low, attracted far less notice than was its due, and then sank below the grass-line. Revenger comes out this week, with any luck to the larger audiences and greater acclaim it so richly deserves. Borrow, buy, or download your copy (our dour sleuth would frown on stealing) – and enjoy.