Until recently, the Matthew Shardlake novels of C J Sansom were pretty much the only Tudor-based thrillers available. Then along came S J Parris and Rory Clements. The fictional trio of Shardlake, Bruno and Shakespeare are now joined by a new colleague: William Harley, Clerenceux, King of Arms from historian Ian Mortimer writing under the pen name James Forrester.
The year is 1563 and the threat of Catholic reprisals against the new Queen Elizabeth I appear to be everywhere. William Harley is given a book by a Catholic friend and told that the fate of two Queens depends on it. His friend is soon arrested by the authorities and killed, and Harley himself on the run from the agents of Elizabeth's spymaster, Francis Walsingham.
Any new novelist trying to break into this area is going to have to find a new angle to avoid accusations that they are merely copying Sansom et al. In fairness to author James Forrester, he achieves this by turning the usual approach on its head. Most fiction writers for this period feature characters who work for the established regime and to some degree or other sympathise with the Protestant cause. Harley is a Catholic sympathiser and, although he works for the state, despises the reformist ideas of men like Walsingham or William Cecil.
Initially, this takes a little time to get your head around - the idea that you are meant to be rooting for the Catholic sympathisers runs contrary to expectations. As you become used to it, though, it works quite well, giving a different perspective on things. It allows "familiar" historical figures to be shown in a new and slightly different light, forcing you to reappraise your views. We all know that history is written by the victors and Catholics are usually presented as "evil plotters". Sacred Treason presents them as a group of people who were simply trying to preserve their traditional beliefs.
Unfortunately, this different angle can't hide some weaknesses within the plot. The central plot device never really convinces. It feels like something which had been dreamt up by the author to fashion a novel around, rather than something plausible which actually existed in real life. Indeed, in his author notes at the end, the author admits as much. The chronicle on which the central plot is based does, exist; but it's just one man's diary of life in London during the early Elizabethan period - not a seditious document hiding a dangerous secret. This "fictional lie" comes across in the book - Forrester is using something real, but innocent to create a conspiracy where none exists. Again, this contrasts negatively with the works of authors like Parris or Sansom, where historical fact and fiction are woven seamlessly together.
What did frustrate at times was the slightly preachy tone of the narrative. It's fairly clear which side of the Protestant/Catholic debate Forrester sits on and there were times when he was got on his soap box, getting his characters to voice comments and criticisms which clearly reflected his own ideas. There's not necessarily anything wrong with this, providing it feels natural. In Sacred Treason, you too often feel that the characters are nothing more than a mouthpiece for the author.
Perhaps surprisingly (given that the author is a professional historian), the historical setting never really came through as strongly as the Shardlake, Shakespeare or Bruno books. There were plenty of places in Tudor London mentioned, but the author never successfully recreated these or made them feel like an essential part of the plot. S J Parris, for example, excels at re-creating the sights, sounds and smells of Tudor England, but Forrester never replicates this. The historical setting is a mere backdrop for the action, rather than an essential element of it. Ironically, Clerenceux himself feels a lot less real than his other Tudor detective counterparts, even though he is actually based on a real person two of the others are not!
He also forgets one essential fact: historical thrillers are about atmosphere as much as accuracy. So, whilst Forrester gets little details right (such as the date of a full moon in 1537 or the names and locations of London parishes), he loses the bigger picture and never puts these small details together to form a convincing image of the dirt, poverty and grandeur of Tudor London.
The real issue I had with the book, though, was that I just never found it that gripping. It was perfectly acceptable but I never experienced that rush you get from really great books. Sacred Treason never fascinated me in that way and had someone taken it off me halfway through and told me I could no longer read it, I wouldn't have been mildly annoyed but not devastated. I enjoyed reading it in a passive sort of way, but I'm not in a desperate rush to read to go out and read the two sequels.
At the end of the day, the Tudor mystery market is becoming increasingly crowded and you need something really special to stand out. Whilst Forrester comes up with a new angle, he can't match it with a gripping plot. As far as I am concerned, his character lags a very distant fourth behind the other three Tudor investigators Shardlake, Bruno and Shakespeare.
Headline Review, 2011
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