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In Paperback: The Heretics

By (January 27, 2014) No Comment

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by Rory Clements

John Murray, 2014

Readers of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” will be familiar with her sad, illuminating fancy of Shakespeare’s sister, who possessed his same gift for language but was frustrated at every turn by a society ruled by a female queen but entirely dominated by men, and eventually killed herself “one winter’s night and lies buried at some crossroads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.”

Less tragic and more adventurous are the whodunit exploits of Rory Clements’ signature fictional invention, Shakespeare’s brother John, a grim, tall, long-haired operative in Sir Robert Cecil’s shadow government and its ongoing struggle against Catholic sedition at home and abroad. This Shakespeare sibling can be handy with a sword, forbidding in his manner, and brisk in his business; he has none of that famed familial facility with language, although he has a perhaps more important quality shared in common with the playwright: “His presence alone was often enough to lure men into revealing their secrets.” His position as a gatekeeper to the Cecils brings him into contact with a steady stream of such men:

Many men came to Shakespeare’s door, scratching like curs for coins in return for information; at times of want it was a daily occurrence. Most of the intelligence was worthless, scraps of tittle tattle overheard in taverns and gaols. Bit it all had to bel listened to and some of it, no more than a tiny portion, had to be investigated.

The Heretics, the latest paperback in the John Shakespeare series (a series with a deplorably spotty publication record in the United States), opens with just such a man wanting to reveal his secrets to our hero: a desperate, somewhat beady part-time actor named (and associate of the sainted Will) Garrick Loake has come to John Shakespeare’s London home wanting a great deal of money in exchange for his knowledge of “a most foul conspiracy unfolding,” one that “wafts from the papist fastness of eastern England, gathers force in the seminaries of Spain, but it will blow into a tempest here.” Loake’s hints about “a conspiracy the like of which England has never seen” are initially only a distraction for Shakespeare, whose thoughts are preoccupied with the request he’s received for conversation with another man, the condemned Jesuit priest Father Robert Southwell, who’s languishing in Newgate prison and faces on the morrow the horrific fate of base-born traitors.

Southwell has a favor to ask of John Shakespeare: on the eve of his death his conscience is plagued by memories of a young woman who years before was tortured and broken by his fellow Jesuits, a young woman named Thomasyn Jade. Southwell urges Shakespeare to find this woman and let her know that Southwell and his associates have arranged a small amount of money and a comfortable life for her, if she’ll accept it.

Any mystery reader will know right away that Thomasyn Jade and Loake’s most foul conspiracy are going to end up being linked, but Clements’ superb pacing and plotting skills keep the whole thing boiling along at such a great clip that every twist and turn of the story is presented with relish. This is a triumphantly good series, smart and richly historically informed, and hot on the heels of this new paperback (available in the United States? Who the Hell knows? It’s downloadable, in any case) comes a new hardcover addition to the adventures of John Shakespeare. Fans of really good historical fiction shouldn’t miss either.