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Traitor’s Storm by M J Trow

May 24, 2014 2 comments

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.

M J Trow

M J Trow

 

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.

 

Crimson Rose by M J Trow

September 22, 2013 1 comment

Crimson Rose by M J Trow

Crimson Rose by M J Trow (Severn House, 2013) is the fifth in the current series featuring Kit Marlowe as a detective. This is paralleling Mark Chadbourne’s slightly different take on the playwright as a spy in a supernatural version of Britain (see The Scar-Crow Men), and following in the footsteps of Ged Parsons who wrote four Christopher Marlowe Mysteries which were broadcast on BBC Radio in December, 1993. Not to put too fine a point on it, there’s something rather attractive about purloining an historical character who both had a reputation as a rather clever individual and probably also spied for the then English government. If an author is determined to appropriate someone from the real world, it’s a big step forward to pick someone a little exceptional.M J Trow

 

In this book, we have a double appropriation. Kit is about to launch Tamburlaine, part 2 (they didn’t do trilogies in those days) and, to show magnanimity to potential rivals, one Williams Shakespeare is recruited as an actor. It’s his responsibility in a pivotal scene to take up an arquebus and excite the audience with the uncertainty of whether he can actually get it to fire. Exactly as rehearsed, he hits his mark on the stage, the gun is fired, and a woman falls dead in the audience, a bullet hole in her neck. This is something of a surprise to all in the audience and completely devastating to Shakespeare who finds himself thrown in jail along with the arquebus — in those days, any object causing the death of a human was forfeited as a gift to God. Actually the history of the deodand is fascinating, particularly when the railways arrive with the possibility of mass casualties. For reasons that escape me, the arquebus given to Shakespeare to use on stage actually contained a bullet. Even in those uncivilised times, I suspect that was too dangerous a level of realism to bring to the stage. What if the playwright-in-making had inadvertently shot one of the cast?

 

As we read through this book there are some terrific anecdotes and just enough detail to a establish the context for the action but, at best, the characterisation is sketchy. We meet quite a lot of people but there’s little or no background supplied. It’s all in the moment as we’re expected to fill in the stereotypes as moneylender, corrupt official and so on. I’m not against this in principle. Some authors make the plot the dominant feature in their work and leave the rest of the work to the readers. Indeed, even a luminary such as Agatha Christie was occasionally guilty of this, churning out some mechanical plots and moving named characters around until the right result came out. But Crimson Rose is thin as historical fiction and saved only by quite a pleasing sense of humour, a jealous spat between playwrights as a subplot, and an ingenious murder plot given the level of technology available to the Elizabethans. Like many methods for murder, this depends on circumstances singularly unlikely in the real world, but it’s a clever idea and the result makes for an interesting puzzle to solve. Indeed, it all fits together like a snaphaunce, plus the chance to work “fifty shades of grey” into the plot to show current awareness. Given there are several jokes about codpieces and Shakespeare sleeps safely with his landlady’s sister, there might be a case made to describe this as a rollicking good late-mediaeval read. Except that might not quite be the right designation of era and there’s absolutely nothing explicit about the book. It just chugs happily along, crossing off the suspects as we go until there’s really only one person left (or possibly two). The motive for all the fatal excitement is pleasingly a necessary feature the time and would happily make the basis of a play (or two). We even get a veiled reference to a bear in hot pursuit stage left. Put all this together and Crimson Rose is great fun with a nicely constructed plot to paper over the slightly thin historical detail.

 

For a review of another book by M J Trow, see Traitor’s Storm.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

The Scar-Crow Men by Mark Chadbourn

It’s always pleasing when fiction collides with historical fact because it gives the fiction more heft. When you know many of the details are accurate, it encourages more suspension of disbelief over the fantasy elements. So, in The Silver Skull (Swords of Albion 1), we met Christopher Marlowe, sometime playwright and, by reputation, a spy. The second volume, The Scar-Crow Men (Pyr, 2011), is set in 1593. This means Marlowe has to die and Mark Chadbourn uses this to give us a pleasing mystery story wrapped up in an understanding of Doctor Faustus, one of Marlowe’s best plays. In this, he relies on the art of coding and decoding, using those words both in the literal sense of ciphers and in the more modern sense of semiotics which encourages us to deconstruct text to access the meaning within.

We start with a performances of Doctor Faustus in which a “real” devil appears on stage. This was part of the mythology of the early performances of the play, and interweaving our fictional hero and his team into the middle of an event where a hysterical audience is induced to bolt for the doors to cover an assassination attempt, is pleasingly ingenious. We also have the novelty of a female Molly Maguire emerging from the Irish countryside to rescue our hero and join forces against the Unseelie Court. This ties together factions of the English, the Irish and the French under Henri of Navarre.

Mark Chadbourn looking slightly piratical in an Elizabethan style

So, having been disappointed by The Silver Skull, is this better? The answer is a qualified “yes”. I found two aspects of the first episode annoying. As to the first, we have resolved the problem of scale. In this exciting tale of an Elizabethan James Bond with a sword rather than a Beretta in his hand, we are significantly more realistic in our movements around the countryside and, when we travel abroad, it’s on a more modest and, therefore, more convincing basis. So no more turbo-charged coaches with modern suspension on paved roads. This time we run and walk around with a brief diversions on to horseback, into very slow-moving gypsy caravans, and on to cross-channel ships that sail in real time. We have reached an accommodation between the needs of Will Swyfte to live up to his name, able to react quickly to an enemy that can communicate and travel through mirrors, and the practical limitations of non-magical transport as then available.

However, if anything, the second objection as to the definition of the fantasy elements has become even more annoying. I was prepared to forgive much because of the nature of the magical defence of the realm erected by the perfidious Albion. For once, we were genuinely living up to our international reputation for treachery. Yet this second volume plunges us even more deeply into the supernatural mire without any kind of explanation. I suppose I should not have been surprised when literal devils appeared in the plotting mix. It’s a natural development given Dee’s reputation as an occultist. If we’re going to make the Fay real, why not make black magic real. Except I’m never happy unless there’s some gesture of explanation for the different magic systems and the relationship between them. It seems some elements of the occultists’ activities can represent a defence against the Fay. It’s also interesting to see the gypsies with their own accommodation with the Fay. This gives us several overlapping belief systems, depending on which old gods (or devils) are being worshipped. While there’s still a chance for Chadbourn to pull the fat out of the fire by explaining the origins of the Fay and showing how they relate to the more general supernatural systems, I’m not convinced he can make it all hang together convincingly. Hopefully, he can surprise us all with his ingenuity.

Returning to the quality of this volume, the construction of the plot is far more successful. I’ve always been a sucker for a well-rounded mystery within a mystery and this is particularly clever. Returning to the earlier reference to semiotics, this is central to understanding this book. Marlowe has left all kinds of hints and messages to guide Swyfte. All he has to do is understand them. We start with the text of the play itself. The literal words on the page contain deeper meanings when we know the playwright and understand that what he writes may be informed by his experiences. So this is an exercise is textual analysis and actual decoding when a cypher is discovered physically added to the text. To deal with the first, we must explore Marlowe the man, his history and his motivations. As to the second, we need a keyword to insert into the Vigenère square that Marlowe preferred as his encoding method. Swyfte deduces the keyword and, towards the end of the book, we get the decoded text but, not to put too fine a point on it, this element of the plot is contrived and identifying the keyword is not quite as unambiguous as Swyfte would have his friends believe. Nevertheless, this discovery does give rise to some interesting historical insights and later becomes crucial in identifying who’s doing what to whom and why. When you view the whole plot with the benefit of hindsight, it’s particularly satisfying. Everything clicks into place. I’m also pleased by the meaning of “scar-crow men”. Since we are concerned with finding the meanings within meanings, it’s always good to think about what makes us human.

So, on balance, The Scar-Crow Men is an improvement on The Silver Skull. The plot is far superior and, with Dee playing the part of Q in the James Bond mould, we have not unrealistic gadgets to help our superspy on his way to victory. As a final thought, I am also particularly pleased by the suggestion of why contemporary “experts” might doubt the authorship of works by Shakespeare. It marks a pleasing way to move us on to the third episode when we may see Swyfte crossing to Ireland and finding a woman to fill the hole in his heart.

Good atmospheric artwork from Chris McGrath.

For a review of the final book in the series, see The Devil’s Looking Glass.

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