Treachery by S. J Parris [book review]

Have I been sleeping for the past five years? I can’t think of any other reason why I’ve been so totally oblivious to thTreacherye series of historical thrillers by S. J Parris that feature a 16th century heretic philosopher and spy called Giordano Bruno. Apparently Bruno did exist – (if you’re ever in Rome go and look out his statue in the Campo de Fiori). He abandoned his life as a monk, swapping cloisters in Italy for the fringes of the English court where he became friends with the poet Sir Philip Sidney and part of the ring of spies employed by the Queen’s closest advisor Francis Walsingham. This pair seem unlikely heroes but since they made their appearance in 2010 they’ve featured in five novels and a novella all of which have earned critical praise and avid readers.

Treachery is book number four. It transports us to Plymouth in 1585 where St Francis Drake is about to embark on a voyage to the New World. There is a lot riding on this voyage, not least the chances of a fortune for the travellers and their backers, and of course the Queen who needs to bolster her coffers in case the Spanish launch an invasion attack. But the voyage may be doomed before it ever sets sail. A sailor is found dead in his cabin and Drake needs to keep the suggestion of foul play from reaching the ears of his crew. He also suspects the killer isn’t yet done. “If I am right, there will be more deaths. Ending with my own, if he is not stopped,” says Drake.

Fortunately Sidney and Bruno happen to be in the city at the time, having been despatched to wait for a Portuguese royal exile and escort him safely to London. Who better to sort through the cast of suspects and manoeuvre their way among prostitutes, scholars, booksellers, apothecaries and priests to uncover the truth?

There is plenty to delight in this novel. As the amateur detectives bustle through inns, whorehouses, wharfs in search of a murderer they climb trees, leap out of windows and scale ladders to escape death. It’s a fast and furious narrative that kept me turning the pages. Amid the drama there are some fascinating period details   (though unlike many an author of historical fiction Parris doesn’t bash you on the forehead with all her research material.  Instead we get gems such as the poisonous effect of nutmeg (go easy on you next cake making session or you might get some unexpected results) and moments of humour. She knows that many readers will be familiar with the historical background so there’s little need to waste time on explanations; she can get straight on with the action.

Comparison with the C.J Sansom series featuring the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake is inevitable. Both turn on impossible feats of strength and endurance; both feature leading men whose personal beliefs put their own lives in peril but Parris is a better writer  than Shardlake so has the edge for me. A gripping and fun read, Treachery is the perfect book to take on a long flight or to the poolside.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on June 21, 2016, in Book Reviews, historical fiction and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. I have never heard of this series. Strange, especially this is so much my type of book. Off to investigate now!

  2. I enjoy so much this series, and they are fantastic as a series. Now that I’m almost done with Louise Penny, I’ll go back to catch up with this one

  3. I haven’t managed to read either S J Parris’ or C.J Sansom’s series but I would like too!

    • They are both worth trying. I found Sansom’s series feels a bit like it’s re-visiting old territory in the later novels but the first one is definitely worth reading

  4. I somehow assumed this is a book about dragons from the cover

  5. I’d always assumed this was a poor copy of Samson so never bought it or got it from the library. Your review has made me revise this opinion – definitely due another look! Thank you.

    • They both score very highly in terms of authenticity of the period detail and the ability to bring it to life

    • i can see why you came to that idea because there were a number of authors who jumped on the bandwagon once they saw how successful Samson was. Parris is streets ahead of most of those however

  6. Here’s a link to Heather McHugh’s poem about Giordano Bruno and that statue you refer to.

  7. I have read the first two of this series and have the third on my enormous tbr buried away so far from view I had forgotten about it. This one sounds superb.

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