In this ingenious debut, Rory Clements introduces John Shakespeare, Elizabethan England’s most remarkable investigator, and delivers a tale of murder and conspiracy that succeeds brilliantly as both historical fiction and a crime thriller.
In a burnt-out house, one of Queen Elizabeth’s aristocratic cousins is found murdered, her young flesh marked with profane symbols. At the same time, a plot to assassinate Sir Francis Drake, England’s most famous sea warrior, is discovered–a plot which, if successful, could leave the country utterly defenseless against a Spanish invasion. It’s 1587, the Queen’s reign is in jeopardy, and one man is charged with the desperate task of solving both cases: John Shakespeare. With the Spanish Armada poised to strike, Mary Queen of Scots awaiting execution, and the pikes above London Bridge decorated with the grim evidence of treachery, the country is in peril of being overwhelmed by fear and chaos. Following a trail of illicit passions and family secrets, Shakespeare travels through an underworld of spies, sorcerers, whores, and theater people, among whom is his own younger brother, the struggling playwright, Will. Shadowed by his rival, the Queen’s chief torturer, who employs his own methods of terror, Shakespeare begins to piece together a complex and breathtaking conspiracy whose implications are almost too horrific to contemplate. For a zealous and cunning killer is stalking England’s streets.And as Shakespeare threatens to reveal a madman’s shocking identity, he and the beautiful woman he desires come ever closer to becoming the next martyrs to a passion for murder and conspiracy whose terrifying consequences might still be felt today…
ROSE DOWNIE SAT on the cold cobbles, cradling a swaddled baby that was not hers.
She leant her aching back against the wall of the imposing stone house, close to its arched oak door. Under any other circumstance nothing could have brought her near this building where baleful apprehension hung heavy in the air like the stink of tallow, but the man who lived here, Richard Topcliffe, was her last hope. She had been to the court of law but the justice had merely shaken his head dismissively and said that even had he believed her – which, he said, with a scowl, was as unlikely as apple blossom in November – there was nothing he could do for her.
The constable had been no more helpful. ‘Mistress Downie,’ he said, ‘put the baby in a bag like a kitten and throw it in the Thames. What use is it alive? I promise you, in God’s name, that I will not consider the killing a crime, but an act of mercy, and you shall never hear another word of the matter.’
Now, outside Topcliffe’s house in the snow-flecked street, close by St Margaret’s churchyard in Westminster, Rose sat and waited. She had knocked at the door once already, and it had been answered by a sturdy youth with a thin beard who had looked her up and down with distaste and told her to go away. She had refused and he closed the door in her face. The intense cold would have driven anyone else home to sit at the fireside wrapped in blankets, but Rose would not go until she had seen Topcliffe and begged him to help.
After a career in national newspapers, Rory Clements now lives in a seventeenth-century farmhouse in Norfolk and writes full time.