Another Other Shakespeare

Martyr: The First John Shakespeare Mystery, by Rory Clements, (Witness Impulse), 448 pages, Released October 21, 2014

OK, so I recently confessed to my weakness for historical mysteries featuring Shakespeare’s relatives. Some of these get pretty campy and formulaic. Rory Clements’ Martyr is most definitely not one of those campy mysteries. It’s a carefully plotted novel rich in historical detail.

The premise here is that John Shakespeare (Will’s older brother) works as an intelligencer for Francis Walsingham, one of Elizabeth I’s secretaries. Not secretary as in “take a memo,” secretary as in Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense, to name some possible modern equivalents.

Elizabeth’s England was a dangerous place. Older adults of the time would have witnessed their nation swinging from Protestant to Catholic then back to Protestant, with plenty of heresy-hunting on both sides. In this climate, Walsingham’s services to Elizabeth were invaluable. He invented and ran what might be called England’s first MI5, and paid for it out of his own pocket (Elizabeth was happy to drain others’ pocketbooks for her own purposes).

When the country returned to Protestantism after the death of Mary I (Bloody Mary), Elizabeth’s older half-sister, Catholics had to practice their faith in more and more secrecy. Failure to attend weekly Protestant services was punished with fines. The true loyalties of Catholics were in doubt—were they Elizabeth’s men or were they loyal to the Pope, who had declared Elizabeth a heretic?

English seminaries were established in several parts of Europe, training priests (Jesuits) who would be smuggled back into their home country after ordination. Some of these priests-in-hiding limited their activities to performing the mass and providing spiritual comfort to Catholics, but others were more actively involved in the various plots to remove Elizabeth from the throne and to replace her with Catholic Mary of Scotland, who had been living as a (rather cosseted) near-prisoner in England since her reign was overthrown by her son James.

Once Walsingham uncovered Mary’s complicity in a plot to overthrow Elizabeth, Mary was executed (after some dithering on Elizabeth’s part) and Catholics became more hated than they already had been. Despite Elizabeth’s oft-quoted statement that she had “no desire to make windows into men’s souls,” any number of her representatives were doing exactly that kind of window-peering, looking for treason. The fact that an individual identifying a Catholic harboring a priest would have rights to that person’s property after his (or her) execution only made the hunt that much more fervid.

This is the setting in which John Shakespeare works. At the novel’s start, he’s called to investigate the murder and mutilation (with religious overtones) of a young woman of high estate recently converted to Catholicism. In the course of solving this crime, Shakespeare also contends with unlicensed printers of anti-Tudor broadsheets, the murder of a brothel-owner, threats to Catholic friends, and persistent persecution by his nemesis Richard Topcliffe.

Topcliffe would make any modern-day “Ten Biggest Villains of Elizabethan Times” list. He reported directly to Elizabeth, was empowered to use any means necessary to uncover threats to her majesty, particularly Catholic threats, and took great pleasure in torturing suspects. In fact, he was licensed to have a torture chamber in his own house, so he could do such interrogations at his leisure, without having to travel across town to use the instruments in the Tower of London.

Clements brings this era to life with all its violence, religious zealotry, backroom political dealing, and blackmail. He also provides a mystery that keeps taking unexpected turns, even after the reader thinks all has been set to order. There’s a romance as well, which I could have done without, but it doesn’t hinder the detailed historical portrait Clements paints. If you like a mystery with substance, one that transcends the genre—and particularly if you’re interested in English or church history—you will find this novel quite satisfying.