Probably best to get things straight from the very first sentence: Thomas Musgrave, the hero of Peter Tonkin’s mini series of books set in 1590s London, may be a master swordsman, a Master of Defence, but quite apart from his other remarkable skills, he also turns out to be rather good at solving mysteries. And the gorier, obscure, and potentially threatening to life and limb of Elizabeth I the better! Throw in some murky plot involving Musgrave’s arch nemesis, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and preferably a few Catholics or ideally Spanish Catholics, a new play by a certain Will Shakespeare, a bit of rapier work, and the scene is nicely set.
There are quite a few writers specialising in stories set in Tudor and Elizabethan England, ranging from the sublime Hilary Mantel to the masterly C.J. Sansom and S.J. Parris, so Tonkin is competing in a crowded market. Like his competitors and inspirations, the setting, the environment of these stories is as important as the plotlines themselves, and just occasionally, Tonkin’s Elizabethan London is more obviously a fictional construct than in other works, but what he may lose in ‘acuracy’ of setting he gains in colour and emoptional backdrop; I like a story to be inherently coherent and plausible as regards the story’s internal trajectory, and if that means inventing a fictional family and creating an imaginary palace, well, all the better. Much of Tonkin’s writing has a deliberately theatrical feel about it, both in his choice of language (some of the dialogues use turns of phrases and expressions straight out of the great Elizabethan plays- Shakespeare, Kydd, Marlowe, Jonson) but in addition the stories include and revolve around plays, sometimes directly, as in the first of the series of books, The Point of Death with its ‘Romeo and Juliet’ storyline, or in the cast of characters who include Will Shakespeare as a code breaker and Ben Jonson as an unwilling and rather bloodlusty apprentice bricklayer. So, Tonkin successfully carves out a distinctive niche for is own writing in this really rather enjoyable series of books.
So, meet Thomas Musgrave, our protagonist and master-crimesolver, who makes his entry in 1587, as a young stripling serving as forager in the English army outside the walls of Nijmagen. One eventful morning involving a runaway horse, a fatal accident, a brutal rape and a few explosions introduces Tom as the resourceful hub of a group of men thrown together by accident but remaining together out of friendship and possibly a bit of calculation that together, the sum of their skills allows them to go further than each working on their own. So they meet on the battlefield; this setting allows Tonkin to throw this unlikely group of a Dutch gunsmith, Ugo Stell, Will Shakespeare the professional spy and code breaker, Talbot Law, tapster and bailiff and finally Tom Musgrave, Italian-trained fencing master and all-round oddball and outsider, together. It also allows this group to brush into the fringes of Elizabeth I’s Court, coming to the attention of the Earl of Leicester and a spy master called Robert Poley, and with these contacts established and the group dynamics forged and set up, the action transfers to London in 1594 and the first run of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and an ever-increasing number of dead bodies, dead either by sword or by poison. What looks initially like an almost random group of unconnected deaths does of course link both together and lead back to the events before the walls of Nijmagen, and in the course of this enthralling story, we get to know our main characters. We learn for example that Tom is originally from the Borders and related to minor nobility. He is a self-made man, relying on his skills as a fencing master to seek advancement at Court, and what makes Tom Musgrave stand out is his slight marginality as both a Northerner and somebody trained on the Continent, and while he is placed in proximity to the Court, he is not of the Court, so cast in the perfect role of the observer. Tom also enjoys considerable success with women, and while his group of male friends (Stell, Shakespeare, Law) – and eventually Jonson) remains constant, much of the dynamism of the stories comes from the changing women in Tom’s circle. Ugo Stell is the skilled craftsman, the gunsmith who fixes everything and who is always there when needed, but never the leader of the little group. Law provies, well, the law, and is the steady and steadying pair of hands reigning in the more impetuous, impatient Tom, while the mercurial Shakespeare often finds himself torn between his personal loyalty to Tom and his political responsibilities for his troupe of players. Robert Poley, like Shakespeare acts as a bridge to the heady world of the Court, and Poley is an important character in that he often holds superior information, and he can borth disclose- or more often- withhold that information.
So, there is much to like about this stories. Point of Death commences on the stage and finishes with an exhibition bout of fencing, and could be described in terms of a play in five acts, with quite a number of rather spectacular set pieces of writing involving sword play and prison breaks. The second outing for Tom Musgrave and his friends is A Head for Murder, which focusses the action on London Bridge and leads in particular to a rather desperate search for a murderer with a penchant for beheading red-headed women. This is of concern to Tom Musgrave as both his mistress, the formidable Kate Shelton, and his patron, the equally formidable Queen Elizabeth I, sport prominent red hair, and of course, it becomes quickly apparent that it is Elizabeth’s head the murderer is after and as before, untangling this allmighty mess sees all the cunning, fencing skiulls and cypher-breaking of our core group of protagonists pushed to their very limit.
The third book of the series, A Midwinter Murder moves Tom Musgrave away from his group of London-based friends as he returns home to the Borders to examine the circumstances surrounding the death of his brother. We both learn more of Tom’s backstory, see more of his indivisual strengths and weaknesses and this simple plot device allows Tonkin to pen a story that is quite different from the two previous installments; in fact, this device works so well for Tonkin that the fourth book in the series, A Silent Murder, is played out in Cornwall, introducing Ben Jonson as Tom’s new sidekick.
These are fast-paced, imaginative and fun books, and Tonkin succeeds in using the plot devices of fencing and a theatrical context to imbue Tom Musgrave with a distinctive identity. Here is looking forward to the next one already…..