Giordano Bruno turns detective: a review of S. J. Parris’ Heresy, Prophecy, Sacrilege and Treachery

web_Heresy-200x307 S.J. Parris, the pseudonym for Stephanie Merrit, is writing in the fairly crowded market of the historical/religious murder mystery, which brings with it both a potentially very loyal group of readers, or a series of comparisons to such writers as C.J. Sansom, creator of Elizabethan sleuth Matthew Shardlake (with a 6th book , Lamentation, scheduled for publication for Autumn 2014). So, series that establish a central character who is then followed through a number of adventures, which each installment building on and deepening the character of the central protagonist are part and parcel of this genre. Parris’ work fits neatly into this pattern, and by June 2014, her central character, Giordano Bruno has been on four adventures with a fairly heavy hint of a fifth installment set in Paris woven into the end of the latest book in the series, Treachery. So, let’s back track a bit and look at the books in their sequence. The book to open the series was  Heresy  (Harper, 2010, ISBN 978-0007317707), which introduces us to an unexpected central character. Unusually for this type of series, the hero of the piece is a historical figure; in this case, Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), an apostate Dominican friar whose actual biographical facts make for quite a sensational story of their own anyway, even regardless of his literary reinvention as one of Sir Francis Walsingham’s spies! Parris draws on facts of Bruno’s established bibliography and fills in the gaps, focusing especially on Bruno’s years in England between 1583-85. Bruno met Philip Sydney and was part of the hermetic circle surrounding John Dee, so these facts become part of the narrative for Heresy (Book 1) and Prophecy (Book 2). The historical Bruno, a ceaselessly energetic, inquisitive theologian-philosopher- mathematician of clearly considerable personal charisma but little willingness to compromise establishes an excellent stereotypical protagonist for the story as the literary ‘Bruno’ stands on his own and is free to form attachments doomed to failure because we all know that in the end, he will be tried for heresy and executed. So what Parris has done here is to create a hero where there is little need for a backstory- she knows that the type of reader attracted to a historical murder mystery is likely to have historical knowledge already- and this allows her to play, keep the reader guessing about plot lines and every so often, she moves from fiction to fact and weaves the fictional story into the established historical narrative. This tension between fact and fiction is skillfully handled and as is the sign of a good book, it ceases to matter very quickly and the reader becomes instead involved with the story. Heresy, the first book, is set in Oxford in 1583 and a series of spectacularly gruesome murders (we are talking people mauled by dogs, slit throats, stabbed altar boys, that sort of things) following key passages from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs unfold like staged set pieces. Clearly, the murders are motivated by religious dissent so of course the excommunicated apostate Bruno gets embroiled and starts to investigate. The plot revolves around recusants in Oxford colleges and before it all resolves itself there are priest holes, books on the Index of Prohibited Books, damsels in distress and a wonderful villain in as good a page turner as one might wish for. The characters are beautifully set out and the plot is developed well in a believably conceived historic setting. Heresy, the second book, is set in London and has some wonderful sequences set at Hampton Court which allow Parris to showcase her research and in lending the court sequences such gravitas and authenticity, she of course has gained the trust of the reader for her plot that revolves around the Great Conjunction of 1583, and the concomitant fears and superstitions surrounding that date.Where in 1524 the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the Constellation of Pisces led to fears of the end of the World, the coming of the Antichrist and generally political unrest (some contemporaries associated Luther and the Reformation with this conjunction), the recurrence of this conjunction, in October 1583, was seen by astrologers as a challenge to the reign of Elizabeth I. And again, thrusting the excommunicated Giordano Bruno into this heady mix of astrology, heresy, prophecy, not to mention murder, makes for a great backdrop to a carefully crafted and engaging story. In the third outing for Bruno, in Sacrilege, the scene of the crime- and therefore of the action- moves from London to Canterbury (Parris again moving her historical character into a fictional setting) where Bruno finds himself up to his neck in the goings on inside the great Cathedral. Parris picks up a few of the story threads from her first book, Heresy, developing the theme of Catholic recusants providing political opposition to Elizabeth I’s reign, focusing in particular on changed modes of church worship. The cult of saints, practices such as Masses to the Dead, reliquaries, pilgrimage etc were an important expression of medieval Christianity, and Parris thrusts Bruno into a context where memories of the old religion were still very much part of a community’s religious make up. Where the high point of Prophecy were the set pieces at Hampton Court, their place is taken in Sacrilege by a series of sequences played out in Canterbury’s Court of Assizes. Treachery, the fourth instalment in the series, reunites Bruno with his friend Philip Sydney at Portsmouth. Of course there has been a murder, this time on board of Sir Francis Drake’s flagship, so this time Parris stages her action in a port and against the expectation both of an imminent invasion of England by a Spanish Armada but also at he height of Drake’s fame with hopes for riches and gains made in the New World at a fever pitch. Bruno again finds himself embroiled in a mystery that deepens as the body count rises with the story resolving itself in a a fabulously swash-buckling finale including secret tunnels and derring-dos on board Drake’s ship. These are great page turners that combine a fabulous grasp of story telling and characterisation with a sure sense of historical context and will I be reading the fifth one, the one where Bruno returns to Paris! Definitely! We have 8 years left between Bruno’s return to Paris and his trial and imprisonment for heresy in Rome. He has yet to reach Wittenberg and Padua, and yes, of course I know that his adventures are fictional, but I like Parris’ way of bringing fiction and facts together. *** Below are details of the books and some links to published reviews- enjoy. Heresy (Harper, 2010, ISBN  978-0007317707) Prophecy (Harper, 2011, ISBN 978-0007317738) Reviewed by  Sophia Martelli in the Observer; Anna Mundow for the  Washington Post  Sacrilege (Harper, 2012, ISBN 978-0007317783) Treachery (Harper, 2014, ISBN 978-0007481194) – reviewed by John Gallagher(@earlymodernjohn) for The Telegraph 

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