Recent Events

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

‘A Verse to Murder’ by Peter Tonkin

Published by Sharpe Books,
19 August 2019.
ISBN: 978-1-69387951-7 (PB)

January 1599, and Queen Elizabeth 1 has been on the throne for many years and not getting any younger. There is no obvious heir nor has she, more capricious and cantankerous than ever, named one. Her various courtiers are circling her, some like Robert Cecil, Secretary to the Privy Council, anxious to promote the candidate that seems best suited for the English throne, others anxious to promote their own claims, like Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, recently returned without success from the continuing wars in Ireland.

Another returnee from the Irish wars, similarly unsuccessful, is the poet Edmund Spenser, formerly Chief Secretary for Ireland. And it is on the very first page of this book, gathered around Spenser’s lifeless corpse, that we encounter the author’s series protagonist, the famed fencing master and self-styled Master of Logic, Tom Musgrave, along with two of his companions, one being the herbalist John Gerard and the other one William Shakespeare. It is Gerard who suspects that Spenser’s death is not accidental but the result of hemlock being poured into his ear while he was asleep (sound familiar, anyone?), hemlock purchased, according to Gerard’s apprentice Hal,  from Gerard’s own pharmacy by a hooded, cloaked individual calling himself Will Shakespeare.

Shakespeare himself, however, although uneasy at the possible implications of any alleged involvement in Spenser’s death, has other matters on his mind; his first plays having been highly successful, he is investing in a new theatre suitable for yet more ambitious productions. And there is the small matter of others plays to write; he is currently working on three at the same time – Hamlet, Julius Caesar and Henry the Fifth­. So, he leaves Spenser’s lodgings, saying as he goes, ‘When shall we three meet again?’ But no sooner has he gone than various law officers arrive and also two individuals, the first being the astrologer Simon Forman, no friend to John Gerard, the second the playwright George Chapman, who is deeply jealous of Shakespeare’s success and accuses him of being a Roman Catholic – probably not true but in those paranoid times, equivalent to an accusation of treason. It is imperative that Tom and Gerard find Hal, and they track him to Forman’s dwelling, but after that, it seems he has vanished. And during the course of the search for Hal Tom and another of his companions, the laconic Dutchman, Ugo Stell, as well as Gerard have to pursue the truth through the various rat-runs and wasps’ nests that constituted Elizabethan London, a pursuit which involves at least one nefarious entry into Westminster Abbey, a number of evenings in various taverns frequented by London’s criminal fraternity, and a trip to the infamous prison, the Marshalsea.

I really enjoyed this book and feel it is best described as a rambunctious romp underpinned by substantial historical accuracy. I read it with one hand free to turn the pages and the other poised over the Google/Wikipedia button. Nearly all the men referred to in the story are real characters, not just the names familiar from A-level history such as Essex, Raleigh, Secretary Burghley, and from Elizabethan literature Christopher Marlowe (dead years before) and John Donne (something of a Lothario when young) among others, but others completely unfamiliar to me: Robert Poley, described by Wikipedia as a government double agent, government messenger and agent provocateur, ‘the very genius of the Elizabethan underworld’, and the really chilling Rackmaster Topcliffe, his function all too well described by his soubriquet. The women, however, who actually appear in the story, are, I think, fictitious, such as Shakespeare’s mistress, Rosalind, and Tom’s ex-mistress Kate Shelton whose sister Audrey was, however, real and as Lady Walsingham was an influential figure in the court of James I after Elizabeth’s death. Tom himself is a fictional figure but his family from the Border between England and Scotland certainly existed. All in all a great read. Recommended.
Reviewer: Radmila May
Peter Tonkin was born 1 January 1950 in Ulster, son of an RAF officer. He spent much of his youth travelling the world from one posting to another. He went to school at Portora Royal, Enniskillen and Palmer's, Grays. He sang, acted, and published poetry, winning the Jan Palac Memorial Prize in 1968. He studied English with Seamus Heaney at Queen's Belfast. His first novel, Killer, was published in 1978. His work has included the acclaimed "Mariner" series that have been critically compared with the best of Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley and Hammond Innes. More recently he has been working on a series of detective thrillers with an Elizabethan background.

Radmila May was born in the U.S. but has lived in the U.K. since she was seven apart from seven years in The Hague. She read law at university but did not go into practice. Instead she worked for many years for a firm of law publishers and still does occasional work for them including taking part in a substantial revision and updating of her late husband’s legal practitioners’ work on Criminal Evidence published late 2015. She has also contributed short stories with a distinctly criminal flavour to two of the Oxford Stories anthologies published by Oxpens Press – a third story is to be published shortly in another Oxford Stories anthology – and is now concentrating on her own writing.

No comments:

Post a Comment