Friday, 19 March 2010

S.J. Parris: Heresy

As a lover of detective fiction I’m always ready to read something new. Heresy ticked a lot of boxes. I’d just encountered the sixteenth century Italian Giordano Bruno in another context - the world of Florence and the Medici. He was once of the most advanced minds of his time - proposing the heretical theory that not only did the earth and other planets circulate round the sun, instead of vice versa, but that there were other planetary systems out there and other universes. Like a lot of early Einsteins he was burnt at the stake by the Catholic Inquisition while still a young man.
In S.J. Parris’s book, he is in England at the court of Queen Elizabeth - one of the known facts of his life - a friend of Sir Philip Sydney and on the payroll of Walsingham, to spy out Catholic recusants. He is also following the trail of a Forbidden Book, originally looted from a library in Alexandria and now being black-marketed around Europe. On a trip to the University of Oxford to debate his theories of the universe with more conventional minds (and look for the book) he becomes involved in solving the brutal murder of the sub-rector of Lincoln College.
This is not Umberto Eco, but it is a good read. It began a little slowly for me - 100 pages of lead-in - and some of the metaphysical conversations could have been edited down, but once the bodies began to turn up, murdered in gruesome and unlikely ways, the pace picked up and I found myself gripped by it.
I didn’t mind the real Giordano Bruno being translated into a fictional detective as much as I expected. S.J. Parris handles the mingling of fact and fiction beautifully. The historical period is rendered well too, without the intrusion of gratuitous detail.
S.J. Parris is better known as Stephanie Merritt, the deputy literary editor of the Observer, and already has two novels to her credit, Gaveston and Real. I think she has a winner on her hands here - the Elizabethan period is a very fertile source for novels of intrigue, betrayal and assassination. Giordano Bruno would be astounded by the direction that his afterlife has taken, but he makes a very interesting hero, as this interview with the author demonstrates.

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