Book review: Traitor by Rory Clements

In 1593, Lancashire was a hotbed of closet Catholics who would happily see the Protestant Elizabeth I toppled from her throne ... and the sleepy market town of Ormskirk, nestling between Preston and Southport, was the centre of a deadly conspiracy.

By Pam Norfolk
Thursday, 10th May 2012, 7:00 am

Master of all things Tudor, Rory Clements is back with his fourth novel featuring John Shakespeare, Elizabethan spy and brother of the famous playwright William, and he uses a real-life northern mystery as the backdrop to a thrilling tale of religion, politics and intrigue.

The plot revolves around the fifth Earl of Derby, Ferdinando Stanley, whose magnificent turreted and palatial home was the now demolished medieval Lathom House in West Lancashire, known in the late 16th century as ‘the Northern Court.’

Here Clements transports us back to the volatile final years of Elizabeth’s reign when Lancashire was notorious for its Catholic sympathies and many of the county’s titled aristocrats hid Jesuit priests within their grand homes.

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Ferdinando Stanley, long suspected of being a secret Catholic, was a cousin of the Queen with a very real claim to the throne. He became embroiled in a dispute with his neighbour, Richard Hesketh, a rich cloth merchant and an openly avowed Catholic rebel, who believed Stanley should become the figurehead for a Catholic bid to oust Elizabeth.

Into this factual maelstrom of religious and political strife, Clements weaves a brilliant fictional thriller featuring our Tudor detective Shakespeare and a cast of real characters like Sir Robert Cecil, the queen’s hunchback private secretary, the magician and astronomer Dr John Dee and the great man himself, Will Shakespeare.

But what makes Clements’ stories work so extraordinarily well is his attention to detail and his extensive knowledge of the period which add ballast and authenticity to pulsating plots featuring murder, mystery and political skulduggery.

The Elizabethan navy has a secret weapon, a spyglass so powerful that it gives England unassailable superiority at sea. Spain will stop at nothing to steal it and seize the two men who understand its secrets – operative William Ivory, known as the Queen’s Eye, and its inventor, the maverick magician Dr Dee.

With a second Armada threatened, John Shakespeare is sent to Lancashire to escort Dee to safety but his mission is far from straightforward.

Only yards from Lathom House, he witnesses the lynching of the undercover Jesuit priest Father Matthew Lamb and then discovers that the Earl of Derby is dying in agony, apparently poisoned.

Shakespeare must find out who wants Stanley dead and why, and work out if there is any connection between these events and the mysterious and beautiful Lady Eliska Nováková from Prague who is staying at Lathom House.

And while he attempts to untangle a plot that points to treachery at the very highest reaches of government, he learns that his adopted son Andrew Woode, currently studying at Oxford, has been charged with an offence so serious that it carries a death sentence.

As the action moves from Lancashire to a vagabond camp in the heart of England, and from the deck of Admiral Frobisher’s flagship off the Brittany coast to the secret meetings of Elizabeth’s closest associates, Shakespeare faces choosing between family and his duty to Queen and country...

Clements serves up another delicious feast of fact and fiction, adventure and adversity and for Lancashire readers, a rich slice of the county’s dark history.

Undoubtedly the author’s best book so far, Traitor leaves us hungry for more...

(John Murray, hardback, £14.99)