Holy Spy | Rory Clements | 2015 | Hodder & Stoughton | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1586 and Elizabethan London is a powder keg of conspiracies. The Spanish fleet and army are amassed on the Dutch coast ready to set sail and smite Elizabeth down. To the Catholic Church, Elizabeth is a heretic and salvation awaits an assassin, her replacement already lined up. Mary Queen of Scots has been moved to a new, more secure prison deep within England, but all she needs is just one of any number of gallant idealists to come to her rescue. But Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s Mr Secretary and Chief Intelligencer, is better able than most to play a game of spies. With a network of agents well placed around England and Europe, he is waiting to set the perfect trap, for Mary and for the young men who flock to the imprisoned queen’s cause. If he is the cat, then Anthony Babington is the mouse. Poised to persuade Babington into the trap is John Shakespeare, a spy who knows where his loyalties lie but, nevertheless, is only too aware of the fate that lies ahead for Babington and his band of ‘Pope’s White Sons’.
Holy Spy is a marvellous depiction of one of the most infamous of English conspiracies, the Babington Plot. But the novel is far from a straightforward re-enacting of events. John Shakespeare is a humane man living during a period of history in which torture and execution are realities, even a form of entertainment for the city’s rabble (of all classes). He is doing a job that he believes in but he wants to do it in his own way. He is a likeable man and, perhaps not surprisingly for a novel as sensitive and penetrative as this one, a fair few of the traitors are likeable, too.
The Babington Plot shares the pages of Holy Spy with a mystery that comes much closer to Shakespeare. A merchant has been murdered and the man who did it declares, even on the scaffold with his dying breath, that he was paid to do it by the rich man’s widow, Katherine Giltspur. The city is baying for her blood. Even Elizabeth wants her hung up as an example. But Shakespeare knows her. She was once Kat Whetstone and there was a time when he thought that they were in love. From her hiding place, Kat reaches out to John to save her.
From the very beginning of Holy Spy I was hooked – by the duel mysteries, the meticulously vivid portrayal of London (so different from the London we know today and yet fascinatingly familiar), and the richly imagined characters, many of whom strut through the pages like they own it. Francis Walsingham is perfectly polite and reasonable but to me he was the black shadow looming large and sinister over the novel. We don’t meet Elizabeth, we just hear of her, but she’s a charismatic force, nonetheless. Babington is captivating, as is Savage, the man who swore an oath to kill Elizabeth. I cared for them both, feelings made all the harder to bear because history makes no secret of their end. I had less time for the men who entrap Babington but their portraits are thoroughly entertaining and well-drawn, especially Gilbert Gifford, known to the really rather odd sister whores who are paid to keep him true as their little pink pigling. Shakespeare’s feelings towards the plotters are as ambiguous as our own and the whole presentation of the plot is both complex and rewarding. Rory Clements is to be congratulated for making such a well-known plot so three-dimensional and believable, not at all black and white.
We’re on more familiar ground with Kat Whetstone and the villains that Shakespeare comes up against in his efforts either to clear her name or reconcile himself to her guilt. Gangster Cutting Ball is a quite extraordinary figure – memorable to say the least. Other little details that I especially liked are the memories of Boltfoot Cooper, John’s assistant, of his years aboard Sir Francis Drake’s ship and the tantalising glimpses we have of the character of Jane, Shakespeare’s new maid.
Although John Shakespeare is the older brother of William Shakespeare, the playwright has no presence here and I liked that. I was pleased that the focus was entirely on John and I had been worried before I began that William would keep popping up, completely unnecessarily. The relationship is almost an irrelevance – at least at this stage of the series.
I didn’t know what to expect from this – Holy Spy is the first novel I’ve read in a well-established series. But what I got was a thoroughly entertaining, disturbing and involving mystery that I found next to impossible to put down. It’s a substantial book but I was driven to read it over just 24 hours. Rory Clements is a wonderful writer who clearly knows Tudor England inside out and his enthusiasm – as well as concerns – for the period shine out. I loved it. I will be catching up.
This week I was fortunate enough to attend an event at the Oxford Literary Festival in which Lindsey Davis, Robyn Young, Rory Clements and Antonia Hodgson held an animated and extremely entertaining debate about which period is best – Roman, medieval, Elizabethan, Civil War or Georgian. I am a Romanist through and through (it was a thrill to meet Lindsey Davies at last after reading and enjoying her books for thirty years) but Rory Clements convinced me that there really is more to the Elizabethan Age than I thought. This is a period that I thought I was done with but now, thanks to Holy Spy and a few other books I’ve been fortunate enough to read over the last year or two, I feel that it is refreshed.