Parris’s novels – Tudor murder mysteries – have often been bracketed with those of C.J. Sansom, but although the work of both authors may be united by genre and setting, there the similarities – at least for me – end. I find Parris to be the more engaging writer by far, for her prose is brisker than Sansom’s, and her protagonist more sympathetic.
Set during the reign of Elizabeth I, this novel introduces us to Parris’s fictionalised Giordano Bruno, a figure who deserves greater remembrance as an early freethinker who fell foul of the Inquisition, being burned at the stake in 1600. A champion of the Copernican system, he was also one of the first individuals to speculate as to the existence of other inhabited worlds orbiting distant stars, and was a proponent of the idea that the Universe was infinite and possessed no centre. Although born in Nola in the Kingdom of Naples in 1548, he resided in England from 1583 to 1585, and it is during this period that he lectured at Oxford, although he was unsuccessful at securing a teaching position there. It is this period of his stay at Oxford in 1583 that Parris chooses to set her mystery.
The novel is a tale of academic rivalry, murder, paranoia, and religious fanaticism. A series of gruesome murders unfolds at the college playing host to Bruno, who happens to have been entrusted with a mission by Sir Francis Walsingham to seek out papist sympathisers and plotters amidst the world of Oxford fellows and dons. They are executed in a strangely theatrical fashion, taking inspiration, it would seem, from John Foxe’s ‘Actes and Monuments’, more popularly known as ‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’. Bruno, meanwhile, possesses a motivation of his own for his visit: to seek out a missing volume of the occult work of Hermes Trismegistus.
Parris’s Oxford appears to be in perpetual half-light, its streets soaked with rain, its academics content with regurgitating intellectually obsolete orthodoxies approved by Elizabeth’s regime, whilst proving unreceptive to Bruno’s challenging new ideas. Fear of papist sympathies and Jesuitical plots stalk the imagination, and Bruno, being an Italian and former Dominican friar, does not escape suspicion.
The book succeeds in producing a vivid feel for the period, whilst not seeking to mimic the speech of the time, although the occasional anachronistic turn of phrase creeps in. Such jarring moments, however, prove to be few. Although this book, for me, doesn’t reach the heady heights of Iain Pears’s ‘An Instance of the Finger Post’, I found it to be an enjoyable read, and will, most likely, read further instalments in this series.