Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Heresy by S.J. Parris

I'm not really a big reader of historical mysteries, or historical fiction in general, the great Wolf Hall being a recent exception, and Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower being an older one. But in my ongoing Finnegans Wake group, we have, as I suppose anyone who's gone into the book very far does, become intrigued by the mysterious character of Giordano Bruno, 16th century Italian monk, who figures in the Wake countless times.

Guess who the crime solving protagonist of Heresy is?

I was quite astonished to discover the recent mystery series using Bruno of Nola as its voice, and so jumped on it.
I must say that this novel did not quite fulfill my original wish of it, as I thought at first it might, because its real preoccupation is the schismatic 16th century of Elizabeth I's England and not the fascinating life of Bruno himself. We get a few hints, but not all that much other than biographical details.

This will not be a strike against it for the vast majority of readers, though, and you can see why Parris, who is in her other life journalist Stephanie Merritt, a contributor to The Guardian and The Observer, chose him as her investigator. A foreigner who would have access to the Oxford scholarly society of the time, in which this story is set, he would also be above the schismatic mindset enough to read the situation without bias.

The story opens with a hint of Bruno's beginnings, and the reason for his long life in exile. It's a terrific beginning, by the way, and should give you a clue as to whether you want to read further. Before long, though, we find him accompanying his friend the poet Sir Philip Sidney while he takes a troublesome visiting prince to Oxford--mainly to get him out of the Queen's hair. Bruno is supposed to be doing a little spying for Sir Francis Walsingham, rooting out the members of the Oxford community who may still be practicing Catholics. But his own agenda is to see if he can track down the lost book of the  ancient Egyptian sage, Hermes Trimegistus, which is rumored to contain a type of knowledge that would greatly appeal to Bruno in his own philosophy.

Soon, though, there is, of course, a murder--or at the very least a troubling death. Bruno is at the scene of the crime--how could he not get involved?

I found this book very good in its depiction of the Oxford of that era, and the mindset of people who had recently been divided by religious schism. If you want a good Oxford tale, this one is for you. The solving of the mystery was slightly over the top for my taste--the villain a bit too bad, when that kind of motive was hardly needed from the groundwork that had already been laid. But this is a minor criticism in a thoroughly competent writer, and to keep the book lively and interesting for 400 pages is an accomplishment in itself.

And I will certainly read the next one, for I'm prepared to follow Bruno of Nola wherever he appears, much as Bruno doggedly follows after Hermes Trimegistus.

Though I am fairly certain that my journey is going to be a lot more enjoyable than his was.           

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