Posted: November 21, 2011 in Book Awards, England, Historical

London, 1593:

Kit Marlowe is found stabbed through the eye and John Shakespeare, investigator for Sir Robert Cecil, is called to the scene. It is believed Marlowe was involved in distributing propaganda against the foreign immigrants from the Low Countries and France. Shakespeare does not believe witnesses that it was an accident and when the first of a wave of bombing attacks against the Dutch immigrants begins he senses a connection. But Sir Robert Cecil wants Shakespeare to make contact with Spanish exile Antonio Perez, a guest of the Earl of Essex and once the most powerful courtier in Spain, who has important information to sell. So Shakespeare sets off on that mission leaving his associate Boltfoot Cooper to discover the source of the gunpowder used in the attack on the Dutch. From then on the action is fast and furious with the Vidame de Chartres, an effete French nobleman, the English priest hunter and torturer Richard Topcliffe, Lucy a beautiful black whore, Dona Ana a sultry Spanish seductress, as well as devious Scots with secretive plots all making appearances in a complex tale that left me breathless. Author Rory Clements won the CWA Ellis Peters last year with the second John Shakespeare story, and Prince has been shortlisted this year. His research appears to be meticulous and the atmosphere of Elizabethan London is evoked with all its poverty, brutality, intrigue and depravity. 

Personally I was rather disappointed in what after a promising start, became just another swashbuckling adventure yarn with chapter after chapter ending in cliffhanger situations. The political messages about immigrants, taking Englishmen’s jobs and trade, with obvious reference to the present day, was repeated ad infinitum as if the reader would not be able to grasp the message unless they read it several times. 

This is the way [poverty] English men and women live and die, while the Dutch strangers wrap their wives in New World furs, fuck their English maidservants and drink Gascon wines.

‘...You are one of us now, an apostle of the Free English Trainband….’

I may be mistaken but this could be an allusion to the modern day English Defence League, which resulted in one reviewer referring to Shakespeare’s foes as ‘certain right-wing political groups’ and Boltfoot joining a ‘right-wing group’.

Was this connection something the author wanted readers to make, if so it was totally anachronistic as the terms right and left were never used until the French Revolution, and the anti-immigrant band in Prince make reference to their leader being a new Wat Tyler or Jack Cade. This reminded me of  London dock workers marching in support of an extreme right wing politician Enoch Powell in the 1960s, and a comment made after the last Scottish elections about the victorious Scottish Nationalist Party. A mixture of nationalism and socialism, what could go wrong?

‘These two people were the only ones outside the Escorial who understood it in its entirety. Its success depended on no one else understanding it.’

In 1593 I would have thought most people in the land would well understand where the main threat to England’s security originated, but that is just my opinion.

I am sure Prince, which has excellent reviews, will be enjoyed as a rip roaring historical adventure yarn, but the four hundred and thirty two pages of action packed narrative left me rather exhausted and bewildered.  

  1. Oh dear this is a bit sad. I liked the first book in this series but must admit I have left it’s successor languishing on the TBR pile for a year without regret. Shame you were so disappointed though

  2. Maxine says:

    I like your ancient/modern points, Norman! I don’t read much if any historical crime but I get the impression that it’s a bit more hit and miss than some other subgenres, which are more predictable about whether to hit or miss ? 😉

  3. Sarah says:

    I looked at this book but passed over it as I studied this period in history for my MA and I’m not sure I can cope with poor research. From your comments it sounds as if the author has attempted (none to successfully) to project modern prejudices onto old ones. I think sixteenth century Londoner’s were suspicious of foreigners especially from the Catholic countries so the book’s emphaisis on this may be a valid one. But there’s no excuse for labouring a point.

  4. Norman says:

    This was actually a well researched book, but it was the frenetic way it was all put together that I found a little disconcerting; Shakespeare never seems to stop running around from place to place. The English workers antipathy to the foreign immigrants, who were Hugenots and Dutch Protestants not Catholics, was in my opinion really laboured. The “right wing group” comment was a natural reaction by the reviewer to this constant theme.
    John Shakespeare with his aversion to torture and liberal attitudes didn’t quite ring true to me. Anyone who has watched the film La Reine Margot set at the time of the Massacre of St Bartholomew 1572 [21 years before Prince] will know what a thoroughly dissolute lot people were in the 16th century.

    But I think that historical crime fiction is by far the most difficult genre to write convincingly. This is possibly why so many winners of the Ellis Peters are set in the more recent 20th century, where it is far easier to create believable characters.

  5. Norman says:

    If it really was Will Shakespeare who wrote the plays, or was it Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford? 😉 Only teasing.

  6. Maxine says:

    Oh, I thought he was Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter writing under a pseudonym 😉

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