Review by John for: Sacrilege (book 3) ~ by S. J. Parris (ARC edition)
A complex medieval whodunit wrapped around the legend of St. Thomas Becket - set in and around England’s Canterbury Cathedral.
About: Giordano Bruno is an Italian ex-monk and radical philosopher. Having fallen foul of a dogmatic Catholic church, he now works for Queen Elizabeth’s principal secretary and “spymaster”, Walsingham, who is battling European plots against England’s protestant monarch. A part of Bruno’s past unexpectedly catches up with him when Sophia, who he used to love, tracks him down. She is disguised as a boy and on the run from “justice” in Canterbury, where she is accused of murdering her husband – a much older man who was also the local magistrate.
Bruno has a reputation as something of a sleuth, and she pleads with him to help her. Despite the many dangers, Bruno finds her advances difficult to resist and she persuades him to try and track down the real murderer. Needing a legitimate reason to travel to Canterbury, Walsingham is persuaded to send Bruno to Canterbury in order to help the spymaster’s local agent, who is trying to keep tabs on an underground movement that is suspected of working with the French and the Spanish to restore Catholic rule in England.
The magistrate’s gruesome murder bears some uncanny links to the death of Thomas Becket in the Cathedral hundreds of years previously. Becket is venerated by local Catholics and it seems that his name and his supposedly lost remains might be used by the plotters to help stir support for their cause. And so the layers of secrecy and subterfuge mount. Sophia cannot be seen in Canterbury for fear of her life; Bruno cannot challenge the local authorities by openly investigating the murder; the suspected Canterbury plotters are all powerful men in positions of authority who cannot be openly crossed; they may or may not possess the remains of the Saint; Walsingham’s agent must preserve his secret role; and in the middle of it all Bruno has to find answers quickly while having no-one in Canterbury that he can truly trust.
Meanwhile there are more murders that stir up the town, and as a foreigner Bruno is automatically under suspicion and finds himself in great danger.
John’s thoughts: While being easy to read, this also has a nicely complex plot with lots of twists and turns. Bruno is a well-constructed character who is smart but with weaknesses. You know he’ll figure everything out in the end, but you can’t see how until you get to the final few pages. When all is revealed, there are plenty of surprises.
Some of the other characters are also well-developed and not too straightforward; people are not always what they seem. I also like the depiction of life in sixteenth century England. You get to experience what it was like for people living in those times – the squalor of life and difficulties for ordinary folk; but also how gritty it was even for many who were relatively well off. It never sits well with me when daily life in historical novels is airbrushed and too clean.
When I first looked at the book I wondered if it might be a bit over-religious for my taste, but it was not at all. Bruno is a disillusioned ex-monk, a key theme of the plot is Catholic-versus-Protestant strife and it’s mostly set in and around Canterbury cathedral, but these just provide a framework on which to hang a good murder mystery suspense. The religious angles didn’t get in the way at all for me.
It’s also interesting that Bruno is a real-life person from history, and an intriguing one at that. While his sleuthing and detective work are fictional, his background and many of the foundation details contained in the novel reflect his real life. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giordano_Bruno
This is the third Parris novel featuring Bruno, and it seems like there are more to come. However, you don’t feel like you are missing out by not having read the first two, and there aren’t any annoying loose ends left that have to be tidied up in future volumes. So this novel is self-contained and can be read as a one-off. Overall this was a fun and interesting read. If you like medieval historic novels or whodunits in unusual settings, this is definitely for you. I’d rate it 3.5 stars.
Random House | April 10, 2012 | Pages: 432
This is book number 3 in this series. The first is called Heresy and the second Prophecy.
S. J. Parris is an English author, and is the pen name of Stephanie Merritt, a journalist for the Observer and the Guardian. Link for an interview with the S. J. Parris about her first book in the series at Book Browse (a favorite place to find books.)