This second book in the Francis Bacon mystery series is a strong as the first. At times bawdy and rowdy, at times thought-provoking, it centers around outgoing and adventurous Thomas Clarady, student and first-time spy, but the scholarly Bacon plays a key role as Tom’s spymaster. The contrast in their characters and lifestyles gives depth and texture to the story. Castle weaves religious-political intrigue, murder mystery, and Tom’s colorful friendships and love life into a tightly-paced plot. The murder mystery and the spy story mix, and though the latter often takes the upper hand, the author keeps track of all the threads. Christopher Marlowe, who is portrayed with quite a flair, plays a role in both plot lines.
The writing is never pedantic, yet each scene is crafted with well-chosen historical details that gives the reader a full sense of the times—the smells, the sounds, the clothes and furnishings, and the beliefs and customs of Elizabethan England. Some historical novelists feel the need to dump all of their research into a book, smothering the story. Castle knows better. She has such a grasp of the times she can use settings, props and costumes as needed, to reveal and enhance characters and events, but never clutter the story. And speaking of costumes, there is a Shakespearian feel to various layers of disguises employed by some of the characters.
One particular scene I found fascinating and revealing was the Rogation Day event. It illustrates the contrast between the Anglicans and the Puritans and the tensions between them. While the issue of religious fanaticism in politics is serious, and the insights Tom gains into how it feels to be a member of such a zealous community are also serious, there are comic touches such as the conflict between two young ladies of opposing views, and Tom’s delightful response to it. I’m sure my neighbors heard me laugh. The balance between comedy and food for thought is just right—and suited to a story told primarily in Tom’s point of view.
The final chapter, amusingly, shows Tom from Bacon’s point of view, so different from how Tom experiences himself. At first the ending seemed a bit dry as the conclusion of such a vivid and juicy book, but then it struck me a sort of “after the ecstasy, the laundry” realism, as Francis Bacon gets on with getting on in the world.
Note: I recommend reading the series in order, starting with Murder by Misrule.
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