Right now every publisher wants to get themselves a C. J. Samson. It’s easy to see why. His books, set in the during the latter period of Henry VIII’s rule featuring lawyer-cum-sleuth Matthew Shardlake, are entertaining, fast paced and are rich with historical details. Shardlake himself is a compelling character, a hunchback on the margins of the Inns of Court society, who’s otherness and warm intelligence is easy empathise with. And the scholarship – which is very detailed – is lightly displayed in the series. There is never a feeling of having history foisted upon you in a heavy handed manner but plot and historical event sit neatly together without feeling forced. C. J. Samson’s books sell very well and it is little wonder that rival publishers are trying to imitate his success, the most notable being S. J. Pariss (a pseudonym for novelist Stephanie Merrit) who’s series feature former monk Giordano Bruno and are set a few years later, in Elizabeth I’s reign. Her books are similarly enjoyable and deliver their experience in a way that isn’t over burdened by scholarship but which are no less rich and accurate in detail and atmosphere.
Rory Clements, then, is John Murray‘s answer to C. J. Samson. His sleuth is John Shakespeare, older brother to William, and an intelligencer in Sir Francis Walsingham’s underground network of spies and informers. Or rather he was in the first novel, Martyr. By the time Revenger opens in 1592 Walsingham is dead and there is a political struggle at the very heart of government between the Queen’s favourite, the Earl of Essex, and Sir Robert Cecil, one of the Queen’s key advisors. Shakespeare, now a school master, is dragged out of his exile by Essex who asks him to find a woman that everyone had thought dead. Shakespeare is pretty much forced into accepting this mission and has many doubts about whether or not the woman is alive. Still, he finds himself dragged deeper into the machinations of government when Cecil asks him to spy on Essex for him because he fears the Earl’s intentions to the Queen. Shakespeare, who is now worried for his and his family’s lives if he does not accept this double mission, sets about hunting down the missing woman and spying at the same time.
This plot becomes an excuse for a tour of late Elizabethan England and it’s major characters: Essex, Cecil and several others are portrayed in particular details and there is even a character list with potted biographies of some of the more obscure characters in the novel. There is also a glossary to help you with many of the terms that bard the narrative – some of them are particularly obscure, so this does come in handy. But it is this sort of historical detail that undoes the novel. I cannot comment on the accuracy of Rory Clements’ history but I can say that it is layered through the narrative very thickly. For example, Sir Francis Bacon makes one or two very brief appearances, this is one:
In one dark corner he [John Shakespeare] stumbled upon another guest whom he instantly recognised as Francis Bacon, his breeches dropped low, with another guest, whom he vaguely thought to be the celebrated scholar Henry Cuffe, standing boldly in front of him.
This scene adds nothing to the plot at all. It is simply an excuse to drop the detail of Bacon and his homosexuality into the narrative in what seems to me to be a display of historical peacockery. Similarly, the littering of obscure words throughout the book, strikes of showing off a bit too much because it, again, adds very little and feels typically heavy handed.
This said, the most problematic element of this novel is the central character, John Shakespeare, who just isn’t very likeable. He is cold to his wife and his failure to grapple with her religion – she is a Catholic, he a Protestant – means that he treats her coldly and with little feeling or empathy. Though the author tries to make him seem like a wholesome sort – and certainly he has a deep moral code that is good and true – his relationship with his wife leaves a sour taste. The inevitable reconciliation between these two distant people at the end of the novel feels false and, no doubt, in the subsequent novels will lead to further fractures in their relationship.
Despite all this, I did enjoy Revenger. The story and the period is very interesting and the author manages to weave real events through the narrative. To my mind, it makes a good summer read, particularly if you are interested in the Elizabethan era. It might not be in the same league as C. J. Samson but that doesn’t mean Rory Clements will never get there. The early Ian Rankin novels were nowhere near as good as his later efforts – his book Black and Blue was a real breakthrough, as the writer has suggested himself – but they got better. Writing is something that takes time and practice and there is enough good stuff in Martyr and Revenger to leave me hopeful.
Revenger is available on Amazon here