Martyr: An Elizabethan Thriller


Rory Clements


Mystery / Thriller


Date Reviewed:

January 19, 2012

t the library, a copy of Revenger caught my eye. Revenger looked good enough to give a try, except that I saw it was the second book in a series by Rory Clements. So I put down Revenger and went looking for the first novel, which is Martyr. Martyr was a good enough read that I will return to Revenger and continue with the further adventures of John Shakespeare.

Martyr is set in London during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. It is a stressful time - the powerful Spanish are threatening to invade, and internally the country is wracked with strife between the Catholics and the Protestants. Prior to the rule of Queen Elizabeth, England was ruled by "Bloody" Queen Mary, who got her nickname because she tried to force all her subjects to embrace the Catholic faith. Now that Elizabeth rules, the Protestants are persecuting the Catholics. I thought Clements did an excellent job depicting the religious divisions between the citizens. His portrayal of life in medieval England, showing us prostitutes, pursuivants, printers, priests and pious citizens was well done; clearly Clements has done a good deal of research.

The tale begins with John Shakespeare investigating the cruel murder of beautiful Lady Blanche Howard - Shakespeare is an investigator who works for Walsingham, who is the Secretary of Intelligence for the Queen. At the murder site, Shakespeare finds disturbing evidence that suggests that the young woman may have been involved with Jesuit priests, who have been slipping over to England and advocating against the Queen. Indeed, the Queen's chief torturer, Topcliffe, has been tasked with finding a trouble-making Jesuit named Robert Southwell and he will use any means to get the information he needs. Topcliffe turns up at the Howard crime scene, and he and Shakespeare are quickly at odds. Although Shakespeare is loyal to the Queen and wants Southwell found, he despises Topcliffe's brutal methods for extracting information.

Walsingham entrusts Shakespeare with the job of finding out the truth about a Spanish plot to assassinate Sir Francis Drake. Drake was a legendary sea captain, reknown for his ability to capture and destroy Spanish ships, so the Spanish fear him most of all. With Drake in charge of the English fleet, the Spanish fleet might be turned back, despite their superior numbers. If Drake were to be murdered, then it would be far easier for the Armada to set sail for the invasion of England. Shakespeare must quickly stop the killer, or all of England will be at risk.

John Shakespeare is the older brother of the famous William, but the playwright only makes a cameo appearance in this novel. Perhaps Clements is saving William for a subsequent case.

During the course of his investigations, Shakespeare encounters a Popish woman named Catherine Marvell. Because Shakespeare and Marvell are different religions, they exchange harsh words with each other, each of them deploring the crimes committed in the name of God by the other faith. Given their antipathy toward each other, their subsequent romantic relationship seemed completely out of character. It was this inexplicable romance that prevented me from rating this book higher. But overall, I enjoyed this well written historical.