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Thursday 28 May 2015

‘The Traitor’s Mark’ by D K Wilson

Published by Sphere,
12 March 2015.
ISBN: 978-0-7515-5038-2

History can be rich source of material for a novelist, especially those periods when the country seemed to be governed through a complex web of intrigue and conflict. Henry VIII’s reign is especially fertile ground in which to sow the basic seed of fiction: ‘what if...? Religious factions conspired against each other, neighbours kept a suspicious eye on each other, all levels of society were rife with secrets and prejudices.

C J Sansom’s Shardlake novels take place against a background of political chicanery which puts modern-day scandals involving phone-hacking and leaving laptops in taxis in the shade – and now D K Wilson is the new kid on the historical crime block. Not that he’s exactly a kid; before embarking on his Thomas Treviot series of novels, he was already a distinguished historian.

The Traitor’s Mark is the second in the series, which follows the fortunes of a master goldsmith in 16th century London. The story is based on a real-life mystery which has never been solved: the disappearance of Johannes Holbein, the painter who came to prominence because of his definitive portraits of Henry VIII. As a result of the brutal murder of Holbein’s apprentice, in which Treviot’s assistant Bart is implicated, our hero becomes embroiled in the often vicious tug of war between Catholic traditionalists and reforming Protestants, following the King’s break with the Pope and the consequent battles for supremacy.

The narrative reads like C J Sansom on speed. The plot gallops along, leaping from one crisis to the next, and the pace and action are relentless; no sooner does Treviot extricate himself from one predicament than another lands in his lap. As he pursues the notorious zealot  ‘Black Harry’ in search of vindication for Bart, he finds himself in the company of senior churchmen and political figures, involved in political wrangles and forced into situations which are quite opposed to his sensible, even-handed nature.

Many of the characters are larger than life, and some of the bad guys seem to have no redeeming features, but that goes with the territory; given the colourful history of the time, no one stretches credibility too far. I especially liked Lizzie, Bart’s feisty wife, a former prostitute; and Ned Longbourne, one-time monk and now a clear-sighted and perceptive apothecary.

Everyday life against the main backgrounds of plague-ridden London and rural Kent is brought to life by subtle use of detail: trenchers instead of plates, pewter in place of china, sturdy but basic tools and weapons, the use of the river as a main thoroughfare. The dialogue treads a fine line between the ‘gadzooks’ style which never sounds quite natural and modern speech which is, after all, how the characters would have sounded to each other. My only tiny quibble is that there are an awful lot of characters called Thomas, which could lead to confusion.

Wilson clearly knows his subject, and uses it to great advantage. And on this showing, he has a knack for telling a good tale as well. Long may Thomas Treviot thrive, and his series continue.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

D.K. Wilson is an historian and expert on the Tudor period. He is the author of the Tudor mystery novels 'The First Horseman' and 'The Traitor's Mark', both of which star a young goldsmith called Thomas Treviot.
As Derek Wilson, he has published a range of acclaimed non-fiction books on Tudor England and Henry VIII, including 'The Plantagenets: The Kings that Made Britain' and 'The English Reformation: How England was Transformed by the Tudors'.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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