It was a chance remark from a writer colleague on Twitter which alerted me to SJ Parris aka as Stephanie Merritt. The comment was commending the author on a new book and comparing her to CJ Sansom. What? Why had I never read these? Of course I had read odd bits of Merritt’s journalism but these novels had, unaccountably, passed me by. So I scampered to Google for more information and ordered Heresy (2010) which is the first in the series. Fat as it is, I then devoured it in less than three days.
It’s detective fiction set in Elizabethan England when religious and political tensions were almost unimaginably tight. Henry VIII had parted company with Catholic Rome and founded the Church of England in 1531. When his daughter Mary (“Bloody Mary”) became Queen in 1553 Catholicism was restored and Protestants ruthlessly persecuted. The accession of her sister Elizabeth in 1558 wrenched the country back to Protestantism. One of the most extraordinary things about all this now is just how close together these events were – easily within one not particularly long life. Someone who was 20 in 1531 would have been only 47 in 1558. Everything changed and happened so quickly – a bit like Brexit and the pandemic really, apart from the torture and grisly hanging, drawing and quartering.
Inevitably too it wasn’t simply a matter of what you believed (or not). The monarch – Elizabeth – was head of the Church of England so disloyalty to the established church was a very short step from treason. And of course, at base, it was simply a power struggle and that’s as topical a theme as ever.
Against this background Merritt/Parris gives us Giordano Bruno of Nola. A real historical figure, he developed ideas about cosmology which contravened Catholic teaching. He escaped from his monastery in Italy, travelled through Europe, secured royal patronage in France and held university posts but was eventually executed for his heresy. Merritt’s novel takes him to Oxford to stay at Lincoln College as part of a delegation and this visit really did take place. Fiction kicks in when a series of mysterious murders at the college involves him in a detective-style investigation.
It’s powerful and intriguing gothic stuff – including bodies presented by the murderer as if they were saints from Foxe’s Book of Matryrs (1563). One for example is left with arrows lodged in his body like the famous painting of St Sebastian. And Merritt is good at period detail including the rooms, the taverns, the streets and the clothes which you can almost feel – and smell. Many of the buildings and streets are still there too. St Michaels at the Northgate gets several mentions, for instance, and that’s the church my parents were married in back in 1945.
Merritt’s version of Bruno is attractive too. He is what a 21st century person might call liberal-minded. He is prepared to tolerate people’s beliefs although he’s also happy to take money for spying from Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s principal secretary. He is distressed by a public execution and, inevitably, has an eye for a pretty girl who is also intelligent and well informed. He’s a rounded character and I look forward to spending more time with him through the rest of the series.
I was amused, though, by his implausible, physical powers of bounce-back resistance. Then it occurred to be that this is common to most detective fiction. EM Forster famously (Aspects of the Novel. 1927), and wittily, drew a distinction between Homo Sapiens and Homo Fictus. The latter, for example, never urinates – or he didn’t in 1927. Homo Detectus is, I think, a subset of Homo Fictus. His USP is that you can stab him, lock him up, starve him, nearly drown him, punch him or any other form of assault and he will somehow recover, often almost immediately, without long-term physical or mental after-effects. Bruno suffers some pretty nasty things in this tale but, of course, he’s OK. He has to be – ready for the next novel.
My colleague was right. This is a bit like CJ Sansom although I’d give Heresy four stars where Sansom would always have got five. There is also a whiff of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose – monks etc – and of Colin Dexter’s Morse because it’s Oxford.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman