By Anna Mundow
Saturday, February 27, 2010; C08
By S.J. Parris
Doubleday. 435 pp. $25.95
If proliferation is a sign of health, then the most vigorous member of the historical novel species must surely be the religious thriller. We know what to expect of these ecclesiastical romps: Sadistic clerics, heroic visionaries, ancient texts, torture chambers and a sprinkling of Latin are guaranteed whether the turmoil being depicted is the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Inquisition or some obscure schism.
The latest example of this thriving subgenre is "Heresy," by S.J. Parris (the pseudonym of British writer Stephanie Merritt), a vigorous philosophical thriller that wastes no time getting to the point. "They have sent for the Father Inquisitor," a desperate monk whispers to his cellmate. "There is no time to lose." Along with this rallying cry -- the first of many -- we can practically hear the galloping of hooves and the creaking of thumbscrews.
The monk in question is Giordano Bruno, the 16th-century Neapolitan philosopher who was finally burned at the stake for his belief in an infinite, Copernican universe. (The actual Bruno was a Dominican friar. "Heresy" ends well before his execution, although a planned sequel may take us there.) We meet our hero in 1576, in the monastery's latrine, where he has retreated to read Erasmus's forbidden "Commentaries." Discovered by his superiors, he is soon on the run, making first for "the lion's maw" of Rome. "I was not afraid to die for my beliefs," he asserts, "but not until I had determined which beliefs were worth dying for."
The philosopher's subsequent adventures in Italy and France are revealed throughout the novel as intermittent recollections, but the main plot, which takes place in 1583, is planted firmly on English ground. There the young visionary accepts a more earthly mission. At the behest of Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's spymaster, Bruno reluctantly agrees to use his time at Oxford University -- where he has been invited to debate the rector -- to investigate a suspected papist conspiracy against the Protestant crown.
"No man in Oxford is what he seems," one scholar declares. Nor is Bruno, of course. We soon learn that he is in Oxford not primarily to win a philosophical debate or to expose papists but to find "the lost book of the Egyptian high priest Hermes Trismegistus." This book, the 15th volume of a fabled Hermetic treatise, reportedly contains "the lost wisdom of the Egyptians, a secret that could destroy the authority of the Christian church" by revealing "the secret of knowing the Divine Mind."
Parris, an economical writer, keeps the mysticism in check as she portrays Bruno, with his sly, agile intelligence, encountering the dark, introverted world of Oxford, where fear and suspicion prevail. Foul weather and dank courtyards, both vividly described, conceal not only dissent, it turns out, but murder. First the college sub-rector is killed by a half-starved wolfhound, unleashed by an unseen hand. Then, as subsequent murders terrorize the college, the rector asks Bruno to investigate, a task that complicates not only his earlier mission but also his involvement with the rector's beautiful and intellectually rebellious daughter.
The fact that each gruesome murder is apparently inspired by the executions depicted in John Foxe's "Actes and Monuments," a chronicle of Protestant martyrdom, hints at a papist killer. Or is this merely a ruse? Cryptic clues accumulate as Bruno is drawn into an underground world of hooded priests, secret Masses and outlaw romance.
The final showdown, like many other dramatic moments in the novel, recalls similar scenes in countless adventure novels; and Parris's dialogue -- courtly one moment and modern the next -- often seems unmoored from the novel's era.
Nevertheless, Bruno commands our attention and our sympathy as any likable heretic should. "I hate no-one," he declares as his own death seems imminent, "I want only to be left in peace to understand the mysteries of the universe in my own way." To which the murderer sneeringly replies, "Ah. Tolerance." By this stage, the plot has -- perhaps belatedly -- broken out of claustrophobic Oxford and made for the countryside, where the long-anticipated galloping hooves finally arrive.
Mundow is a literary correspondent for the Boston Globe and a contributor to the Irish Times.