Traitor’s Storm by M J Trow
Traitor’s Storm by M J Trow (Severn House, 2014) continues the series of historical mysteries and espionage thrillers featuring Christopher Marlowe. This time, we’ve arrived at the month of May, 1588. In terms of productions at the Rose, we’re up to the Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd which is rather convenient given that King Philip of Spain is now more seriously planning an attack on Britain even though we have a rather good navy and well-trained gunners (if the reports from their spies are to be believed). On the other side of the Channel, Sir Francis Walsingham is worried he’s not had word from Harry Hasler, one of his spies, who had been sent to the Isle of Wight — one of the more likely places upon which an invading Spanish fleet might disembark its beachhead troops. So he decides to send Marlowe to find out what’s what. After minor diversions to find a suitable conveyance to the island, Marlowe is welcomed by the discovery of a body. Instead of the missing spy, the deceased proves to be a local landowner or gentleman farmer. He’s been found dead, lying head-first in a culvert. After dancing the night away, our heroic scribbler does his CSI thing on the body and concludes the victim was out to meet a lady and was murdered for giving attention to the wrong place (husbands having a tendency to kill off anyone who engages in a criminal conversation with their wives).
There’s not a little humour in the description of England’s state of readiness to repel the predicted invasion force. This is the Tudor version of Dad’s Army with few locals having any interest in developing military skills, and the usual petty divisions and jealousies among the senior officers of the Crown actually charged with the task of mounting a defence. At the heart of the book, therefore, we have Spain with ambition and a fleet, but no patience to wait for the weather to calm down. While Britain is following the model laid down by Ethelred who wasn’t quite ready to be King at the first time of asking so had two goes at the job. All of this leads people in the know to focus on the Isle of Wight because, if taken by the Spanish, it would make a very good base from which to disrupt British naval dominance of the Channel and a logistics hub from which to invade the mainland. In theory the Crown has done the right thing by putting a relative of the Queen in command of the local garrison. Unfortunately, the locals are more interested in maintaining good communication with the continent for smuggling in all the good food and wine they have come to enjoy. So patriotism be damned when money’s at stake.
So if it’s to be war, we’ve already lost which leaves Marlowe with the tasks of finding the missing spy (whose loss may be due to action by Spanish agents) and solving the murder of this landowning Lothario. When a second body appears, there may be a hint of a motive but, without more evidence, it’s rather difficult to say. So, to pass the time, our scribbler is prevailed on to write a short masque. This will take everyone’s mind off the threat. He therefore summons his trusty stage manager from London and this sparks the smugglers into life. They fear an investigation of their activities is underway and kidnap the incoming stage hand to determine if Marlowe is a threat.
So there you have it. The Armada is just over the horizon where the wind is getting up. Drake is stuck in port. There may be a Spanish cuckoo in the Isle of Wight nest. And the smugglers are up in arms against the British no matter what the Spanish may be doing. Against this background, Marlowe works his way steadily around the Island, exchanging gossip with locals as to who is sleeping with whom (which ironically includes Hasler who’s know for sowing a few oats, wild and otherwise) and, dashing off the odd speech which might even sound good on the lips of the Queen. The resolution of the historical events is well-known (my Spanish accent does not show through the written form of English) and the solution of the criminal and espionage matters proves reasonably engaging. For those who prefer their historical mysteries to err on the slightly more humorous than gritty side of the line, Traitor’s Storm is just the teacup in which to arrange a storm of enjoyment.
For a review of another book by M J Trow, see Crimson Rose
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.