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Nicholas Shelby

THE HERETIC’S MARK . . . Between the covers

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SW Perry’s Elizabethan medical man Nicholas Shelby
returns in the latest of the ‘Mark’ series. We’ve had The Angel’s, The Serpent’s and The Saracen’s, (click to read reviews) and now we have another journey through the complex religious politics of the 16th century with The Heretic’s Mark. Nicholas has married his fiery Anglo-Italian lady Bianca née Merton. Her London South-Bank pub – The Magpie – has been destroyed by fire, but is being rebuilt. The newly-weds have a pressing problem, however. An innocent Jewish doctor has been executed for trying to poison the Queen, and Sir Fulke Vaesy, an embittered rival of Nicholas, has attempted to link him to the conspiracy. Fortunately, Nicholas has the ear of the Queen’s spymaster Robert Cecil, but he is advised to make himself scarce while the furore dies down.

Nicholas and Bianca decide to undertake a journey, posing as Catholic pilgrims, along the the Francigena, a route from France into Italy, its path worn by the feet of the devout. Along the way they are accompanied by a strange young woman – Hella – who they met in the Low Countries. She is a member of the Beguines – nothing to do with the dance, but a lay order, similar to Nuns. Hella is both disturbed and disturbing, as well as being sexually attractive. While Nicholas and Bianca are foot-slogging across the alps, back in London all is far from well. Rosa Monkton –  Bianca’s maid – and her husband Ned have been given oversight of the reconstruction of The Magpie, but Ned has become obsessed with trying to find out who has put Nicholas in harm’s way.

Nicholas and Bianca have arrived in the city of Padua, along with the enigmatic Hella. Padua is Bianca’s former home, and they become involved with a scheme – spearheaded by Bianca’s cousin Bruno and his friend Galileo (yes, the very same) – to build a huge and complex system of globes, rings and cogs which will predict the movements of the planets. Bianca has become (as they used to say) “with child”, but has been told by Hella – much given to doom-laden prophecies – that the child will be stillborn and, thereafter, Bianca will be unable to bear children.

Much of the action of this book takes place in Padua, but occasionally darts back to London to report on the travails of Ned and Rose Monkton. As Bruno and his acquaintances work feverishly at their great *armillary sphere, Nicholas becomes uncomfortable aware that Hella is determined to prise him away from Bianca, and her motives, as well as the obvious sexual one, are deeply sinister. No-one realises just how sinister, however, until a mysterious man in grey – who has been dogging Nicholas and Bianca’s footsteps on their journey across Europe – is unmasked.

This is seriously good historical crime fiction. SW Perry has done – as ever – an impressive piece of history homework, but that doesn’t matter, because great narrative drive, believable characters and an almost tangible sense of time and place make this a compelling read. The Heretic’s Mark is published by Corvus and is out now.

*An armillary sphere (variations are known as spherical astrolabe, armilla, or armil) is a model of objects in the sky (on the celestial sphere), consisting of a spherical framework of rings, centred on Earth or the Sun, that represent lines of celestial longitude and latitude and other astronomically important features, such as the ecliptic. As such, it differs from a celestial globe, which is a smooth sphere whose principal purpose is to map the constellations. It was invented separately in ancient Greece and ancient China, with later use in the Islamic world and Medieval Europe.

THE SARACEN’S MARK . . . Between the covers (click for full screen)

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SW-Perry-photo-1-2-300x482SW Perry (left) whisks us away from our disease ridden present misery to – with almost supernatural prescience – the streets of London in 1593, where plague is also keeping the gravediggers and the parsons working around the clock! The late sixteenth century versions of  plucky NHS employees come in the shape of Bianca Merton, a young Anglo-Italian woman who keeps The Jackdaw, a Bankside tavern (and who is also much in demand as a herbalist – a purveyor of what we now call alternative medicine) and her close friend Dr Nicholas Shelby, whose medical knowledge is more conventional.

The disease has, so far, gone about its malevolent business north of the River Thames, but with no daily calls for social distancing, it finds its way south:

“Her name is Ruth. She is returning to the lodgings on Pocket Lane that she shares with her husband. Ruth feels uncomfortable hot. By the time she reaches home, she will have a fever. She will awake the next morning to find painful swellings in her armpits. Young and strong, she is in the habit of thanking God for a strong constitution. But in a few days she will be dead. The pestilence has crossed the river.”

Bianca is much in demand among the worried residents of Bankside for her concoctions:

“Pomanders of rose leaves, tragacanth gum and camphor to hang around the neck … clove and lemon to mix in a posset . . . also a tincture of bezoar and sorrel. Mix that in water or small beer every morning.”

TSM coverNicholas, however, has been sent on a mission by one of the most powerful men in Queen Elizabeth’s kingdom – her spymaster Sir Robert Cecil. England has a complex relationship with what we now call Morocco, and in particular with the ruler of Marrakesh, but the death of Adolfo Sykes:

“..a small, somewhat bow-legged half-English, half-Portuguese merchant with a threadbare curtain of prematurely white hair that clung to the sides of his otherwise- unsown pate.”

… needs to be investigated, as Sykes is a key strand in Cecil’s silken – but deadly – web of spies and agents. When Nicholas finally arrives in Marrakesh, he discovers that Sykes had uncovered a slavery ring involving, among others a brutal and violent sea captain called Cathal Connell. Now that Nicholas is aware of the secret, it is only a matter of time before Connell and his accomplices come looking for him. While the unpredictable world of Moorish politics find him alternating between foul prison cells and  a life of luxury surrounded by servants, back in London ….

“The pestilence has returned with a vengeance. The Savoy hospital has closed its doors to new patients and posted guards on the water stairs to deter visitors. The chapel’s death-bell tolls with increasing frequency.”

This is a richly rewarding novel, full of fascinating historical detail, but Perry never allows the authenticity of  his main characters to be hidden beneath a superfluity of information about what they are wearing, or the contents of their dinner plate, or elaborate architectural descriptions. Bianca and Nicholas are separate from each other for most of the narrative, but each drives the story forward relentlessly. As we are only too well aware just now, plague knows no historical boundaries, but Perry’s skill as a storyteller is equally timeless – and magical. The Saracen’s Mark is published by Corvus, and is out now.

If you like the sound of what the author calls The Jackdaw series,
then read my review of The Serpent’s Mark.

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