The Queen’s Spy by Clare Marchant: A page-turning, addictive read - book review -
Apothecary Tom Lutton fears that being both deaf and mute at the volatile court of Queen Elizabeth I might prove to be a dangerous handicap…
But the queen’s ruthless spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, believes Tom’s ability to lip read and observe from ‘the shadows’ gives him a special talent, especially when it comes to collecting important intelligence.
In a follow-on to last year’s gripping debut novel, The Secrets of Saffron Hall, Clare Marchant takes up the thrilling story of the Lutton family and moves the action forward to 1585 when Eleanor Lutton’s adoptive son Tom leaves France for England, the country of his birth.
Blending the loves, lives and dramas of this charismatic Norfolk family in both the past and the present, Marchant effortlessly slips between two timelines as we meet Mathilde Lutton, a rootless, globe-trotting woman whose unexpected inheritance takes her into the heart of a dark and unforgivable betrayal stretching back over five hundred years.
And what a page-turning, addictive read The Queen’s Spy proves to be as we are thrust into the machinations of Walsingham’s spy ring, which faces the growing challenge to Elizabeth’s throne from her scheming cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, and become immersed in the perilous secrets that await Mathilde at crumbling Lutton Hall.
In 1584, an ageing and increasingly paranoid Elizabeth I rules England from Greenwich Palace in London but a dangerous plot is brewing and an increasingly ambitious Mary Queen of Scots will stop at nothing to take her cousin’s throne.
Meanwhile, Tom Lutton, who has been deaf and mute from birth, is returning to England after decades in France where he and his adoptive mother Eleanor fled after Tom’s father was executed by King Henry VIII.
Able to communicate using only a wax tablet for writing and through lip reading, Tom has always faced suspicion and mistrust but hopes to find a home in his native England where he can feel safe and accepted.
After using his herbal skills to help save the life of the ship’s captain on the voyage from Calais, Tom is recommended for a post as assistant to Hugh Morgan, the Queen’s apothecary, and a place in court life.
Soon he comes to the attention of Sir Francis Walsingham who thinks trusted apothecary Tom will make an exceptional spy and for the first time in his life, Tom’s lack of hearing and speech is not ‘a hindrance nor weakness, but a talent.’
In 2021, photojournalist Mathilde travels the globe in her campervan and has never belonged anywhere. Her Lebanese mother, who died when Mathilde was only sixteen, taught her daughter the skills of a herbalist and they both lived a nomadic existence as refugees in France.
Mathilde was told her father, journalist Peter Lutton, died in a bombing raid in Beirut before she was born but when she receives news of an inheritance, Mathilde is shocked to discover her father had narrowly survived the blast and spent most of the rest of his life trying to track her down.
So now her father has died before he could find her, Mathilde has a family –including a half-sister and niece – in England, and Mathilde has inherited the family’s medieval hall Lutton Hall in Norfolk.
Mathilde has no plans to hang around at shabby and badly neglected Lutton Hall but she discovers she has an immediate connection with the place, almost as if ‘something here had been expecting her…. watching and waiting.’
Drawn to the old chapel in the grounds, where she senses someone is ‘trying to talk to her,’ Mathilde makes a haunting discovery. Can she unravel the truth about what happened there all those years ago and will she finally be able to call Lutton Hall home?
Marchant brings nuggets of real history gloriously alive as Mathilde discovers the family she never knew existed and follows a twisting, turning path into Tom’s past to unearth the toxic mysteries and hidden secrets which have overshadowed Lutton Hall for centuries.
Moving between the vibrant Elizabethan court at Greenwich Palace and the contrasting lush rural landscape of Norfolk, Marchant delivers a richly captivating timeslip story of intrigue, romance and mystery.
Brimming with beautifully drawn characters, and possessing all the eerie atmospherics of a Barbara Erskine novel, The Queen’s Spy gives satisfying closure to The Secrets of Saffron Hall but can easily be read as an enthralling standalone.
(Avon, paperback, £8.99)