Book Review of "Martyr" by Rory Clements

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By Patrick Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 15, 2009


By Rory Clements

Bantam. 388 pp. $25

It is 1587, and all is not well in merrie olde England. Queen Elizabeth continues to dither about executing her long-imprisoned cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, who has been convicted of treason for plotting against Elizabeth's life. In Spain, the hated Philip II is assembling a vast armada intended to defeat the English navy and launch an invasion that will end with the Protestant Elizabeth imprisoned or dead, along with thousands of her followers, and a Catholic on the English throne.

England's best hope of survival seems to rest with its great sea-captain Sir Francis Drake, who has sailed around the world, defeated the Spanish in previous battles and, in his role as the queen's favorite pirate, relieved Spanish treasure ships of millions of pounds in gold and other valuables from the New World. He is now supervising the construction of a new English navy that might destroy the armada. But England also faces a more immediate threat: Elizabeth's spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, has evidence that the Spanish have sent a skilled assassin into England to assassinate Drake and thus assure their conquest of England.

Enter the hero of this engrossing thriller, John Shakespeare, age 28, Walsingham's chief investigator, whose loyalty to the queen does not stop him from being a decent and compassionate man in an era of extreme violence. Shakespeare? We'll get to that.

The plot of "Martyr" recalls that of Frederick Forsyth's 1971 classic "The Day of the Jackal," in which an assassin, armed with the latest weaponry, sets out to kill French President Charles de Gaulle. In "Martyr" the assassin, also armed with the latest weaponry -- a gun that can fire accurately for more than 100 yards -- stalks Drake. Shakespeare seeks to find the assassin by questioning Catholic priests and nobles who might be supporting him. He often clashes with his arch-rival Richard Topcliffe, a favorite of the queen's who eagerly uses torture to force the truth (or at least a confession) out of Catholics; Shakespeare, on the other hand, tries to work within the law.

This is an extremely violent novel, but it seems to accurately reflect the times. The book made me wonder if we do not often romanticize Elizabeth and her reign. I can imagine two reasons that we might. First, although there is much violence in Shakespeare's plays, the beauty of his writing tends to cast a gentle glow over much of the era. Second, Elizabeth has had the good fortune to be portrayed in recent years by Cate Blanchett and Helen Mirren, two actresses whose abundant charms might make us forget, as this novel does not, that Elizabeth was a hard woman and that, starting with her execution of Mary, she did little to discourage the bloodlust of the period she personified. As the book reminds us, the heads of Catholics decorated London Bridge, men were disemboweled, drawn and quartered; women and even children were put upon the rack. It takes the better part of a page to describe the four days of torture meted out to one Catholic assassin. Sample: "Pieces of his flesh were torn, to the bone, from six parts of his body with pincers; boiling fat was poured over his back; carpenters' nails were driven under the nails of his fingers." We see in grievous detail the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots, which required two strokes of the ax and some sawing -- deliberate incompetence, some thought.

Many scenes and quotations in the novel echo the current debate over "enhanced interrogation techniques," which we common folk call torture. Walsingham cautions Shakespeare that they must use "whatever's necessary in these days of threatened war and invasion." We are told of Shakespeare: "Torture repulsed him, as it did most Englishmen," but there is little evidence for the latter assertion. The torture, although ultimately political, is cloaked in piety -- Protestant vs. Catholic -- and most Englishmen in these pages agree with the sadistic Topcliffe: "It is God's will, Shakespeare. That is all. God and Her Majesty."

There is a great deal going on in this novel -- too much perhaps -- but one's interest does not fade. A beautiful and highborn young woman, a cousin of the queen, is found tortured to death, in a manner that suggests a Catholic killer. Another woman's beloved infant is kidnapped and a deformed infant left in its place. We glimpse England's "first ever state funeral for a nonroyal," that of the beloved soldier and poet Sir Philip Sidney: "Seven hundred official mourners followed the cortege as it wove slowly through the streets of London from Aldgate to St Paul's." Shakespeare encounters a witch and falls in love with a beautiful Catholic, not a good career move.

Clements, a former London journalist, shows us not only great lords and ladies in his first novel but also whores and cutthroats. We meet the delightfully named prostitutes Starling Day and Parsimony Field and the brave soldier Boltfoot Cooper. Do those names recall some in Shakespeare? The author does have Shakespeare on his mind, in that his hero has a younger brother named William, an actor. The handsome and resourceful Will appears only briefly in "Martyr," but given that the novel is presented as the first of a series, we can expect to see more of the brothers Shakespeare. On the basis of this outing, they will be welcome.

Anderson can be reached at

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