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by Rory Clements
John Murray, June 2009
409 pages
12.99 GBP
ISBN: 1848540779

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

John Shakespeare, William's older brother, is one of Walsingham's top agents. In the England of 1587 this means he has a considerable amount on his hands. Elizabeth is in a lather about whether or not to execute Mary, Spain is preparing its Armada, Jesuit priests are being sent from Rome to sow havoc, and there is news of a plot to assassinate Francis Drake. In addition Shakespeare has to deal with the enmity of the brutal Richard Topcliffe, leading Catholic hater and hunter. When on top of this an aristocratic woman is found murdered and mutilated, Shakespeare is plunged into a shadowy world of plot and counter-plot which takes him from hob-nobbing with the likes of Drake and Walsingham, to the brothels and prisons where he must pursue his leads. His position becomes far more complicated when he falls for Catherine Marvell a young woman whom he finds in a Catholic household which Shakespeare, rightly, suspects of harbouring Jesuits. The mission becomes one of not merely solving the mystery and protecting Drake, but also of pursuing his own quest and trying to protect his humanity when the times seem to call for savagery.

On occasion attempting to provide a concise plot summary also helps in establishing what the writer may have been attempting to do in the book, or perhaps what he should have been attempting! In the case of MARTYR the first obvious point to make is that this belongs to the ‘history-heavy' variety of historical mystery. Clements provides us with sketches of key historical personages like Walsingham and Drake, and also of historical moments like the execution of Mary. The latter is really pretty irrelevant as far as the book's plot is concerned, but we still get a competently executed (sorry!) axe-man's account of the event. We even get a small role for younger brother William, who has at the time of the novel just arrived in London (no doubt he could feature more heavily in future books, as MARTYR is intended as the first in a series). At the end Clements provides a reading list for those in search of further information and a set of 'Background Notes'. Readers' preferences for this sort of approach will vary, but in the case of well-known and documented periods and events of this kind I have to admit that if I want to read a history of the period I will do precisely that rather than seeking out a mystery.

However it is important to stress that beneath this wealth or burden of historical information there is a quite reasonable mystery plot. Unfortunately in my view this is obscured not only by all that detail, but also by Clements desire to cram too much adventure and excitement in. The result of this is that rather than gripping, attention becomes diverted from the book's best feature which is the central mystery plot. This may be the fault of a first-time author who is overly concerned with grabbing the reader's attention at every opportunity. Another of the book's weaknesses, which also flows from this over-abundance, is that few of the characters make much of an impression despite their seeming colourfulness. Now in part this may be down to weaknesses in their realisation, but it is also due to the fact that few are given a proper chance to develop. Shakespeare himself is a little bland but this may be no bad thing given the tendency for other characters to be so dramatically drawn.

Reviewed by Nick Hay, September 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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