* Prices may differ from that shown
Despite being a relative newcomer to the scene, Rory Clements' Tudor spy John Shakespeare has quickly established himself as a fan favourite. Unbelievably, The Heretics is his fifth adventure and, although Clements is churning them out quite quickly, there is no evidence that this is affecting their quality.
Once again, Shakespeare is at the centre of events as he uncovers evidence of another Catholic plot to depose the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. Meanwhile, at the dying wish of an executed priest, Shakespeare also investigates the earlier disappearance of a young girl who was subjected to exorcisms years ago at the hands of a particularly devout group of priests.
The first thing to say about The Heretics is that it is an extremely readable book. Given that it is number five in the series, Clements no longer needs to provide much f background information. Most of the major characters are known to his readers and so he can hit the ground running - which is precisely what he does. There are few wasted words in The Heretics: everything that happens is either designed to drive the plot forward or to develop the characters in some important way.
It's true that a couple of plot elements didn't quite ring true. Despite Clements' efforts, there's never a convincing explanation as to why Shakespeare (and his master Robert Cecil) should respect the dying wish of an unrepentant Catholic priest. Some books would fall on this detail, leaving the reader feeling disconnected from subsequent events, but the plot is so interesting that you don't really care.
It's one of those books that once you start reading, you will not want to stop. It's not that it's particularly clever (you will probably work out the overall plot arc long before the finale), but it is highly enjoyable. Clements has a straightforward style that nevertheless creates realistic characters, locations and situations. Whilst the book does not depend on massive amounts of historical information, Clements presents a sufficiently convincing portrayal of Elizabethan England, with its religious divisions, the court factions and constant fears of invasion. Yet when reading The Heretics, it never feels as though you are being given a history lesson.
The Heretics is a little more ambitious than previous titles and it's clear that Clements is growing in confidence as a writer. Rather than concentrating on a single plot device, he branches out with a number of different plots and sub-plots. All of these reinforce the sense of competing interests that put pressure on Shakespeare and force him to make difficult choices. Whilst the plotlines sometimes overlap, they often remain separate and underline the complexities of the environment that Shakespeare operates in.
As in previous books, I do find the central character slightly unlikeable at times. Even if he only rarely carries out his threats, he is a little too ready to threaten people with torture, death or imprisonment if they do not give him the information he needs. Of course, this only seems harsh if you view him with 20th century sensibilities; if you look at him in the context of his times, he is positively enlightened!
An element of the book which has never really worked for me is the idea of the central character being William Shakespeare's brother. Although The Bard occasionally cameos (more so in this book than previous ones), it feels rather forced. There's nothing that couldn't be lost, and you get the impression that the fictional relationship is really only there for the purposes of instant and publicity.
The ending is also something of an anti-climax. After almost 300 pages, Clements drops the ball with an ending that feels rushed and fizzles out. The resolution to a couple of major plot strands is simply dismissed in a sentence or two of dialogue (rather than being witnessed "first hand"), whilst others are left unresolved (although the author may intend to pick these up and develop them in future books).
Despite the odd weakness, The Heretics is a highly enjoyable adventure. It might not quite have the same level of historical detail as C J Sansom's Shardlake series (which remains the benchmark), but it's superior to its other main rival S J Parris' Giordano Bruno. Lovers of Tudor based historical murder mysteries are certainly spoilt for choice at the moment, with three authors writing top quality books!
As a relatively new publication, The Heretics is still fairly expensive -£11.50 for the hardback edition and £10 for Kindle. If you prefer to wait for the paperback, you'll need to be a bit patient - it doesn't come out until the end of January 2014.
John Murray, 2013
© Copyright SWSt 2013