Rory Clements' first novel, Martyr, is an intriguing crime thriller set in Elizabethan England. John Shakespeare is one of Francis Walsingham's intelligencers, charged with tracking down Catholics and protecting Sir Francis Drake as England approaches war with Spain. In this novel Shakespeare investigates the mysterious death of one of the Queen's relatives and this drags him into the murky underworld of London and pits him against another of the Queen's powerful agents.
I have been a fan of detective novels since reading Sherlock Holmes as a teenager but have grown slightly tired of the standard crime novel recently so this mystery with an Elizabethan twist was a nice change. In this period there are no need for arrest warrants, information can be extracted through torture and threats while suspects can go missing without trace in the squalid prison system. The reader will find no subtle and scientific inquiry methods here, just rudimentary investigative skills, brutality and corruption; a wonderful change from jaded cops and high-tech forensic experts.
In Martyr the author does a wonderful job of recreating the political intrigue surrounding the execution of Mary Queen of Scots setting this alongside the filth and deprivation that most of England's inhabitants lived in at the time. This serves as an interesting backdrop to an intricate and well-developed plot in which Shakespeare gradually unravels the mystery surrounding the death of a noble lady while at the same time trying to protect Sir Francis Drake from assassination.
Many of the characters within this novel are memorable and engaging although it is a little frustrating at times that the main protagonist, John Shakespeare, is bested so frequently. However, having a slightly incompetent main character allows the author to use this to create suspense in what is a very enjoyable book which leaves this reader looking for the next book in the series.
I would recommend this book to those who like historical novels and to those who like mysteries but are slightly tired of the hackneyed way in which many of these are written. This is a well-written mystery, thriller with an interesting portrayal of some historical characters (the personalities of Sir Francis Drake and William Shakespeare are rather surprising), the squalor of Elizabethan England as well as some bawdiness.