Wednesday 7 January 2015

A Historical Who-Dunnit!

Way back in the summer when I was staying in Plymouth to kitten sit for my Elder Daughter I was intrigued by the sight of piles of books stacked on a table in Waterstones, surrounded by a little crowd of people, so I pushed my through to discover what was so interesting (OK, I know it’s bad manners, but when you’re five-foot-nothing you have to push your way through so you can see things). Anyway, it turned out to be a display of Treachery, by SJ Parris, a historical who-dunnit set in Plymouth (hence the display I suppose), so I was kind of hooked. Plus the central character is Giordano Bruno, a real life 16th Century one-time monk, philosopher, scientist, astronomer, mathematician, poet and (possibly) spy, who was eventually burned at the stake for heresy.
It seemed an irresistible combination, and the elderly lady standing next to me took time out from urging her friend to buy a copy to tell me how much she’d enjoyed it, and how I could still see some of the places mentioned in the story, even though the city has changed beyond all recognition since she was a girl. She was so enthusiastic and friendly it seemed churlish not to take her advice… so I got the book!
This engraving of Giordano Bruno was published in 1713 and is
thought to be based on an older painting.
It is 1583 and Bruno is in Plymouth with his friend Sir Philip Sidney, who is Master of the Queen’s Ordinance They have business with Sir Francis Drake, who is planning a raid against the Spanish (just to put you in the picture, this is after his round-the-world trip but before the Armada).
Then Robert Dunne, a member of the crew is found hanged in his cabin. It looks like suicide, but he was acting strangely before his death, and the body shows no signs of strangulation. The superstitious sailors are unsettled, viewing the incident as a bad omen, and Drake is worried. An inquest must be held and he fears a murder ruling could destroy the expedition: his ship will be delayed in port while official investigations are carried out, and his backer will withdraw funding. On the other hand, if the inquest returns a verdict of suicide, Dunne’s widow will lose her inheritance – and Drake may still have a killer on board. So Bruno who, I gather, has done this kind of thing before (it may be my first meeting with him, but this is the fourth book in the series), is persuaded to investigate – and he has just three days to do it (sounds like Time Team doesn’t it!). In his hunt for the truth Bruno is drawn into a murky world of intrigue and deceit as he embarks on a race against time, aided and abetted by the hare-brained Sir Philip. 
The ship where Dunne's body is found must have been similar to the Golden
Hind, in which Drake sailed round the world. By 1583, the year the novel is set,
the Golden Hind was displayed at Deptford. I saw this replica at Brixham
Is Dunne’s death linked to earlier events on Drake’s round-the-world trip? Is there a connection with the discovery of a mysterious, dangerous book which could threaten the entire Christian church? And where does the House of Vesta, a high-class brothel, fit into all this? Bruno can trust no-one: the grieving widow comes under scrutiny, and he even questions the behaviour of Drake’s brother. And, to make matters worse, Bruno himself is being trailed by an old adversary who may be involved in the case, or maybe seeking revenge…
There are more murders and he finds cover-ups at the highest level as he exposes prostitution, child abuse, spying and blackmail, picking his way through the tangled web of jealousies and loyalties presented by the crew, the gentry, and local residents. The action romps along at the most tremendous pace – I did begin to wonder how Bruno packs so much action into such a short time! He even manages to squeeze in a brief dalliance with a beautiful, feisty, witty society lady. His efforts to rescue her from the villains end with them both being tied up in a tunnel beneath an old chapel, on an island, with gunpowder and a lighted fuse nearby. But, needless to say, they escape, just as I knew they would – after all, as I kept telling myself, he can’t be killed in a variation of the Gunpowder Plot in 1583, because the real Bruno was burned as a heretic 17 years later.
Sir Francis Drake, in Buckland Abbey, by
Marcus Gheeraerts.
As a rule I don't read many crime novels, but this is historical, so I really enjoyed it, and I liked the fact that it's set in an area I know (even if I don't know it well). Actually, you'd be hard put to find much left from the 16th century in Plymouth - most of the central area was badly bombed during WW2 and afterwards almost everything, including many of the surrounding houses, was flattened to make way for a massive rebuilding programme. But the harbour and the boats are still there, and in the Barbican area you'll find narrow alleyways and cobbled streets, as well as the fabulous Elizabethan House, where you can wander round for next to nothing and get some sense of the way people would have lived at the time this novel is set, or walk in the Elizabethan Garden, just as Bruno might have done. And a few streets away you can find The Merchant's House, which dates from a similar period, and is equally fascinating, although it’s been turned into a museum, with each room representing a different era, so the sense of history is not quite the same.
Talking of history, using real people in a novel can be tricky, but the real Bruno is rather shadowy so it is difficult to take issue with Parris’ portrait of him. And she’s created a wonderfully charismatic character: he’s sensitive and intelligent, as well as being an all-action hero.
Overall I have to say it was difficult to keep up with at times, and I felt the plot wasn’t always credible, but the book was great fun and there is, of course, a twist at the end, which I didn’t see coming, although clues are laid very early on, which is always good – I do hate it when an author suddenly reveals the killer using information which has never been brought to light before, like a conjuror pulling a rabbit from a hat.
This is the Merchant's House in Plymouth, first mentioned
in records in 1601, less than 20 years after the year Treachery
was  set in . In 1583 the city's wealthy merchants and sea
captains would have lived in homes very like this.

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