Carole Tyrrell worked in the theatre for nearly 10 years and was always fascinating by the way death and the supernatural formed many of the greatest and most enduring works. She has read crime fiction for many years and enjoys the broad range of the genre.
Revenger is a book that, to coin the old cliché, I couldn't put down and read at one sitting. It so completely drew me into its world. I was immediately in the centre of the smell, sounds and intrigues of its Elizabethan setting. This was my favourite historical era at school and I could recognise some of the major players at her court, the Earl of Essex, Sir William Raleigh and Gloriana herself as her reign begins to draw to a close.
The book begins with a murder on a bride's wedding day. She runs away with her true love, not her husband, for a tryst in a field. But, unknown to them, someone has followed them and only one will return to the festivities alive. At first it's assumed to be suicide but Joshua Peace, the Searcher of the Dead, an Elizabethan pathologist, confirms that it was murder and that decomposition had almost concealed it.
John Shakespeare, the High Master of the Margaret Woode School for the Poor Boys of London, is interested in the murder and its solution pursues him throughout the book. He is in a mixed marriage in that he is Protestant and his wife, Catherine, is Catholic. These are dangerous times for Catholics and he has forbidden Catherine to attend a secret Mass to be held locally. Shakespeare is an ex-intelligencer, once employed by Walsingham, and now summoned to a meeting with another influential courtier, Sir Robert Cecil. Ostensibly, the reason for the meeting is to discuss Raleigh's lost colony of Roanoke in America.
An attempt had been made to establish an English settlement in Virginia and it seemed to be thriving. But when a ship returns to check on them the entire colony has vanished leaving no trace except the word CRO carved on a tree which could refer to a local tribe called Croatoans. But now a member of the lost colony, Eleanor Dare, has been seen in London and Cecil wants Shakespeare to find out more. There are some in the court circle who want her to vanish again, especially the sinister and threatening Irishman, McGunn. Cecil is also concerned with the plot to put the Earl of Essex on the throne marred to Arbella Stuart. But Essex already has wife, Frances, who has visions of flying things and is almost certainly being poisoned.
Shakespeare accepts the commission and begins to infiltrate Essex's team of intelligencers and code breakers and wonders who will find Eleanor Dare, if she exists, first. In the meantime, Catherine's local Mass is invaded and the priest, Father Southwell, is arrested and tortured, betrayed by her friend Ann Bellamy. She leaves Shakespeare to go into the country and he wonders if he will ever see her again and if he still has a marriage.
A fascinating, multi-layered book which is well researched with authentic language and a real feel for the era. A society with little patience with non-conformists and outsiders and where sympathies can change on a whim. Shakespeare is, at times, unsure of his allies and trusts no-one. But he is skilful in forming alliances and negotiating around the minefield of the court. The ageing Elizabeth, with her prospective successors, circling like vultures, all spying on each other. I was reminded of the celebrated portrait of Elizabeth 1 in which her dress had eyes and ears painted onto it to remind the viewer that she could see and hear everything.
It was also a time in which women could be very powerful and influential. Bess of Hardwick and Lady Penelope Rich, weave in and out of the narrative as determined survivors. But others are mere pawns; Arbella Stuart, Frances, Duchess of Essex, and Anne Bellamy to be disposed once of once used.
The author's research and storytelling skills create a vivid picture of a society where power and survival as its main aims. There is a sub-plot involving Shakespeare's more famous brother, Will, but it doesn't detract from the central themes.
A highly enjoyable read and one I would wholeheartedly recommend to all fans of historical thrillers.