Any story opening with the death of world-renowned playwright Christopher Marlowe on its very first page sets the bar fairly high on the drama and intrigue stakes. I wasn’t convinced maintaining the requisite level of excitement for 400-odd pages was something Rory Clements would be able to pull off in his novel, Prince.
However, enter intelligencer John Shakespeare to prove me wrong: brother to the Bard, William, and employee of the Queen’s wily advisor Sir Robert Cecil. In his third adventure, and in the midst of a London riddled with famine, plague and now gunpowder plots, the Elizabethan sleuth begins to uncover a conspiracy that even he could not have anticipated. With explosions threatening the Dutch immigrant community and the safety of his own family, Shakespeare is in a race against time to unravel a plot to destabilise the Queen’s throne and jeopardise the fates of both England and Scotland. In fact, there is excitement aplenty from start to finish.
The John Shakespeare books have been decades in the making, with the idea first germinating while Rory Clements was still a full-time journalist. What most impressed me about this story was Clements’ ability to set a fast-paced crime thriller in the London of 1593 and to make it entirely convincing. Clements gives life to this world, not just through years of painstaking research into all things Elizabethan – from cuisine to clothing, politics to borstals, autopsies to witchcraft – but through his use of real figures from history and the manipulation of actual events. What we end up with is a scenario that is believable, and perhaps this is what makes it such an enjoyable read. Whether intentionally or no, many of the topics dealt with in this book also still resonate today and it gives acts of terrorism, for example, a longer historical context.
Despite being a historical crime thriller sceptic, I have been pleasantly surprised by Prince, perhaps even converted to the genre. Prince was deservedly shortlisted for the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award 2011 (Clements had already won it the previous year with John Shakespeare’s previous outing in Revenger). With Prince recently released in paperback, avid fans of the series are already anticipating the publication of Traitor, aka John Shakespeare Act IV, which we can expect to see on the shelves this Spring. Not bad for a former journalist.