Sunday, February 28, 2010


12. Heresy, by S. J. Parris

This much is true: Giordano Bruno did go to Oxford in the spring of 1583, in the party of the Prince Palatine Albert Laski and Sir Philip Sidney, where he did engage in a debate on the Copernican theory.

On this thread, S.J. Parks (pseudonym of journalist Stephanie Merritt) has hung her murder mystery. The book opens as Bruno flees his monastery with the Inquisition nipping at his heels. We next see him on his way to Oxford, having traveled far both geographically and socially. By now he had become quite well-known as a lecturer in mnemonics and as a theologian, enjoyed the protection of Henri III, and, in fact, lived in England at the home of the French Ambassador, Michel de Castelnau.

At Oxford, he is immediately confronted with the effects that religious differences in England have had there. Though the Queen sought to consolidate Protestantism there through the appointment of Robert Dudley, Lord Leicester, as chancellor, previous Marian appointments meant that there was still Catholic presence there, and concerns about treason and espionage were not entirely unjustified. Bruno, as an excommunicate, would be unsympathetic to the papist cause, yet because he was a former monk and an Italian, many English Protestants would be suspicious of him.

Bruno has not been in Oxford long when his preparations for the disputation are interrupted by horrific screams, screams that turn out to be from the sub-rector, whose throat is being torn out by an Irish wolfhound. But how did the dog get into an enclosed, locked garden? Bruno is suspicious that this is not an accident. When he finds in the man's room a journal dated using the Gregorian calendar, and in that journal a cipher in invisible writing with the phrase "ora pro nobis", he is sure that something is amiss. A second murder follows hard on the first, and Bruno is plunged into religious and political intrigue.

I will say that I am not ordinarily a fan of books that use well-known historical (or, for that matter, literary) characters as detectives. And, frankly, the part of this book relating to the actual working out of the mystery was the least satisfying. (Honestly, there really aren't a whole lot of murderers who engage in the sort of intricate "message-sending" sort of murders that occur here.) I was much more interested in the playing out of the religious and political tensions between Protestant and Catholic, English and continental European, and how that affected life in Oxford, both for town and gown.

That said, it's quite a well-written book and I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys mysteries set in Elizabethan times. Me, I've plucked John Bossy's Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair off the shelf on which it has been languishing and will let you know whether Bruno really was a spy!

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