Book review: Corpus by Rory Clements

The past few years have seen divisions opening up across society as Europe and America experience huge political changes.

Corpus by Rory Clements
Corpus by Rory Clements

So how timely is this new thriller series from award-winning author Rory Clements, best known for his brilliant John Shakespeare Tudor espionage series set at the court of Elizabeth I and currently in development for television by the team behind Poldark and Endeavour.

In Corpus, Clements fast forwards four centuries for the first of an international spy thriller series, this time set against the drumbeat of the Second World War, a period of European turmoil as the Nazis march into the Rhineland, Stalin unleashes his Great Terror and Spain erupts in civil war.

In 1930s Britain, politics have become polarised with fascists and communists sometimes openly lining up against each other, all consumed by barely disguised hatred. And behind palace doors, there are fears that the looming abdication of the new King Edward VIII could bring fresh threats and chaos.

A consummate historical novelist, Clements seizes on this turbulent period for a dynamic, fast-moving murder mystery brimming with menace, violence and intrigue, and starring a maverick Cambridge history professor caught up in a deadly conspiracy.

Berlin in 1936 is awash with swastika banners as two young Englishwomen, both former Cambridge University students, arrive for the Olympic Games. Unknown to her friend Lydia Morris, socialist activist Nancy Hereward is not just here for the sports but to evade the Gestapo and deliver vital papers to a Jewish scientist.

But within weeks, Nancy, a known heroin user, is found dead in her Cambridge flat with a silver syringe clutched in her fingers. The police believe her death was accidental but Lydia is not convinced and seeks help from her next door neighbour, Thomas Wilde, to uncover the truth.

Wilde, half American and half Irish, is an unconventional, motorbiking, bird-watching history professor at the university with a soft spot for Lydia. His speciality is Sir Francis Walsingham and the Elizabethan secret service… and he is not afraid to ruffle feathers.

Meanwhile, at a London club, three senior members of the British establishment light the touch paper on a conspiracy that will threaten the heart of government and in Cambridge, the ancient colleges are not immune to political division. Dons and students must choose whether they are for the communists on the left, or the fascists on the right.

When a renowned member of the county set and his wife are found butchered to death at their home, Wilde finds himself dragged into a world of espionage which, until now, he has only read about in his academic books.

And the deeper he delves, the more Wilde wonders whether the murders are linked to the death of Nancy Hereward and, just as worryingly, to the scandal building around King Edward VIII and his divorcee lover Wallis Simpson.

The professor must use all his skills to save the woman he loves, and prevent a terrible massacre…

Perhaps the greatest joy for fans of Clements’ highly popular John Shakespeare books is the continuing influence of Elizabethan spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham on this new series, his expertise in the Machiavellian art of espionage looming large over 20th century protégé Thomas Wilde.

And this fascinating pre-war era comes breathtakingly and insidiously to life in a complex, compelling opener to what promises to be another extraordinary historical series as Clements harnesses society’s distrust, divisions and deceptions in a powerful and plausible thriller.

With real history, mystery, politics and espionage at play, Clements is undoubtedly on to another winner…

(Zaffre, paperback, £7.99)