Book review: Prince by Rory Clements

When you are brother of the talented playwright William Shakespeare, life is bound to hold plenty of high drama.

By Pam Norfolk
Tuesday, 24th May 2011, 7:00 am

Throw in some tragedy, light comedy and a cast of historical heavyweights and you have the complete works.

Rory Clements first placed John Shakespeare centre stage in his debut novel Martyr, the second outing, Revenger, won the CWA Ellis Peter Prize for Historical Fiction and in his latest extraordinary adventure, the Elizabethan sleuth continues to steal the show.

Clements’ thrilling murder mysteries are a real cut above...steeped in authentic 16th century politics and the social upheavals that made the period so volatile, the plots are complex and clever, and the characters believable and engrossing.

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John Shakespeare has become a star in his own right, with his more famous brother having only a walk-on part to enhance the literary dimensions of the stories and to add a touch of humour to the very serious detective work.

Best supporting role is undoubtedly John’s loyal servant and sidekick, the fascinating Boltfoot Cooper, whose character development has become one of the highlights of Clements’ excellent series.

In Prince, he is right there at his master’s side when England becomes a powder keg of rumour and fear in the spring of 1593.

The plague is sweeping through London, famine is rife, scheming courtiers are tarnishing the ageing Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Age and across the sea, Spain watches, waits and plots.

Into this turmoil a small cart clatters through the streets of London, carrying a deadly load. It is the first in a wave of horrific bombing attacks on the Dutch community.

City apprentices, who fear that their families and jobs are under threat, are systematically targeting the Dutch immigrants and their deadly campaign will change John Shakespeare’s life forever.

Driven on by cold rage, Shakespeare’s investigations take him from magnificent royal horse races to the opulent chambers of Black Luce’s brothel and from the theatrical underworld of Kit Marlowe and Thomas Kyd to the pain-wracked torture cells of ruthless priest-hunter Richard Topcliffe.

His enquiries also lead him into the elegant offices of the queen’s master tactician Robert Cecil and onward to the splintering timbers of an explosive encounter at sea.

As Shakespeare delves ever deeper, he uncovers intricate layers of mystery and deception that threaten the heart not only of the realm, but also of all that he holds dear.

Clements’ pulsating plot draws clever parallels with social concerns in the 21st century and his excellent historical notes put his story into context, give added depth to his fictional characters and provide useful background on the real-life players.

But his greatest gift is the ability to bring to life the squalor, intrigue and perils of Tudor London and amidst it all create a superbly tense and entertaining mystery.

Roll on Mr Shakespeare’s Act IV.

(John Murray, hardback, £12.99)