Comic Espionage in Elizabethan England

Death by Disputation: A Francis Bacon Mystery, by Anna Castle, (Anna Castle), 364 pages, release date 3 February, 2015

Anna Castle’s Death by Disputation is the middle novel in what’s currently a three-volume series: the Francis Bacon Mysteries. I’s a romp of a read, grounded in the religious feuds of Elizabethan England. Both Catholics and Puritans are dissatisfied with Elizabeth’s rule. Both concoct one scheme after another for making their version of Christianity the faith of the nation—by force if necessary.

Though this is a Francis Bacon mystery, Bacon isn’t the central character. He’s a presence more offstage than on, appearing in person occasionally and sending letters to the real protagonist of the novel, Thomas Clarady. Clarady works as an agent for Bacon; Bacon works for his Uncle, Lord Burghley; Burghley is Elizabeth’s chief adviser, charged with, among other things, keeping the queen safe from religiously motivated plots.

As I noted, this really is a romp of a book. Castle knows the period, but the historical setting takes second place to the novel’s characters which include the poets/playwrights/occasional espionage agents Kit Marlowe and Thomas Nashe, and Clarady’s friend Trumpet from Gray’s Inn, with an almost alarmingly flexible identity that keeps all around him (and/or her) on their toes.

Clarady himself is the son of a privateer (a pirate), who hopes to rise within the highly stratified society of Elizabethan England. Clarady spent time at Gray’s Inn, but was forced to leave when his friend and patron abandoned the study of law for the life of a gentleman. Now, Clarady’s worked out a deal with Bacon: if Clarady can uncover a ring of Puritan plotters at Cambridge, Bacon will see that  Clarady is allowed to finish his education at Gray’s Inn and become a lawyer. Clarady’s task is complicated by the murder disguised as suicide of a tutor who had originally brought the plot to the government’s attention.

Clarady, of course, solves the case. His friends engage in various antics. Marlowe and Nashe appear as “frenemies” of a sort, helping Clarady’s investigation while simultaneously bombarding him with a wide range of insults and snide remarks. Death by Disputation offers readers pleasant, clever company. More novels in the series would be welcome.

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