Corvus | 2018 (6 September) | 418p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1590 and Elizabeth I’s rule is under threat. The Spanish Armada is only recently defeated but the threat continues, perhaps in an even more sinister way. The danger has gone underground in the form of hidden priests who preach sedition to the Catholic subjects of this excommunicated Queen. But, of course, not all Catholics are traitors and Elizabeth is content for many to pay their fines and live their lives in peace, as long as no priest is hidden within their walls. It’s the job of Robert Burleigh, son to Elizabeth’s most powerful minister, to seek them out and he’ll use any means in his power.
Physician Nicholas Shelby has fallen on the worst of times but he finds his salvation in the most unlikely of ways. A young boy has been pulled out of the river, murdered, a strange symbol carved into his leg. This little child couldn’t walk. He was especially vulnerable and Nicholas grieves for him. With the help of Southwark innkeeper Bianca, Nicholas will find justice for him. And then another body is found and it won’t be the last.
The Angel’s Mark is S.W. Perry’s debut novel and it’s a corker. It certainly helps that he’s picked such a fascinating period in English history in which to place a very strong mystery and he does it justice. Elizabethan London, especially that part of the city that lay to the south of the river, where the inns, theatres, bear-baiting pits and brothels could be found, is brought to life so vividly. And Nicholas, as a physician who chooses to treat the poor, is perfectly placed to show it to us in all of its colour and foulness. But it’s among the rich and powerful that the true danger lies.
The mystery is such a good one and this sad story is told beautifully. We get to know a fair few people very well indeed and there are some that really stand out, such as Bianca, John Lumley and his wife Lizzy. The Lumley home is nothing less than Henry VIII’s grand Nonsuch Palace and I loved the descriptions of it. What a place to live in! Our glimpses into the terrors of the Tower of London are equally memorable but for other reasons. But it’s the character of Nicholas Shelby who dominates this novel and he is such a likeable if troubled hero.
There are good themes here – the nature of Tudor medicine and surgery, the role of women in business, the place of Catholicism in Elizabethan society. It’s all done very well indeed.