Book review: The Heretics by Rory Clements

As the curtain rises on the fifth – and hopefully not final – act of Rory Clements’ prize-winning John Shakespeare Elizabethan mystery series, there are whispers of a new stage set for the Tudor spy’s thrilling adventures.

A TV series based on the books is currently in production heralding the advent of a vast new audience for Clements’ classy, gripping and action-filled stories.

Clements’ transformation from newspaper journalist to master of the Elizabethan detective genre has been an entertaining and informative journey.

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His Tudor sleuth John Shakespeare, fictional brother of playwright Will, is a brilliant creation. Down-to-earth, authoritative and endowed with his more artistically creative sibling’s fine brain, his remit as a Crown ‘intelligencer’ is to track down the villains and traitors who threaten Gloriana’s realm.

From heretic priests and Spanish plotters to foreign scoundrels and recusant Catholics, England’s enemies are many and John Shakespeare, along with the enigmatic Boltfoot Cooper, his trusty former seafaring sidekick, is never far from the scheming and violence.

In The Heretics, we find John Shakespeare up to his eyes in another hornets’ nest of intrigue. The condemned Jesuit priest, Father Robert Southwell, is haunted by the memory of Thomasyn Jade, a teenage girl subjected to brutal exorcism rites a decade ago and whose fate is now unknown.

He wants Shakespeare to track down the girl and give her money set aside by Southwell to make amends for her treatment. However, his work as Sir Robert Cecil’s chief intelligencer leaves him little time to hunt down a ‘maddened’ girl who could be anywhere, or dead.

England may have survived the Armada threat but Spanish galleys have been seen landing troops in Cornwall, rumours of a papist conspiracy that could ‘blow in a tempest’ have been emanating from the English college of Jesuits in Seville, plots to kill the Queen are a constant threat and, to crown it all, the royal coffers are ‘full of nothing but air.’

As Shakespeare tries to get a grip on events, one by one his network of spies is horribly murdered and all roads of inquiry would appear to be linked to missing Thomasyn Jade. His first port of call is to a group of priests held prisoner in bleak Wisbech Castle in the notoriously dangerous fenlands and before long, the royal spy is caught up in ‘a dark hole of corruption and wickedness.’

From the pain-wracked torture rooms of the Inquisition in Seville and the wild coasts of Cornwall to the sweat and sawdust of the Elizabethan playhouses, and from the condemned cell at Newgate to the devilish fantasies of a fanatic, The Heretics builds to a terrifying climax that threatens the life of the Queen herself.

Clements brings to vivid life the uncertainties and menace of the latter years of the Golden queen’s reign, a turbulent period marked by religious and social upheaval. By affording John Shakespeare a long leash over vast swathes of Elizabethan England, he is perfectly placed to give us a fascinating insight into the people, their politics and their landscape.

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The story’s darkness is leavened by cameo appearances from playwright Will and the delightful interludes with John Shakespeare’s tough, earthy servant girl Ursula Dancer, a former vagabond who remains resolutely and ‘piggingly’ uninterested in all efforts at social improvement.

Intelligent plotting, compelling storylines and authentic historical detail, all combined with a coruscating cast of schemers, traitors, murderers and religious extremists, brings an invigorating energy and excitement to what is undoubtedly one of the best Tudor crime series on the market.

(John Murray, hardback, £17.99)