Well, it has been quite a while since I last read a historical novel. And, after seeing the name Giordano Bruno mentioned in the previous novel I read, I remembered a really brilliant historical thriller I read a couple of months earlier called “Sacrilege” by S. J. Parris.
A few weeks after I’d read that novel, I ended up returning to the charity shop in Petersfield where I bought it and found two other Parris novels there. So, I thought that it was finally time to take a look at one of them – Parris’ 2010 novel “Heresy”.
So, let’s take a look at “Heresy”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins with a short scene set in Naples in 1576. A monk called Giordano Bruno is reading a banned manuscript in the monastery’s privy when he is interrupted by the suspicious abbot. Barely having time to flush the manuscript, Bruno is placed under suspicion and ordered to wait for the inquisition. Luckily for Bruno, his room-mate gives him a dagger and tells him to flee out of the window before it is too late.
The story then flashes forwards to London in 1583. By now, Bruno is a friend of Sir Philip Sidney – nephew of Sir Francis Walshingham, the Queen’s spymaster. Sidney is about to take a trip to Oxford University to entertain an obnoxious nobleman from Poland and Bruno is invited too. Although Bruno originally plans to attend a debate and look for a lost Greek manuscript in Oxford, Walshingham orders Bruno to be on the look out for religious plots too.
Of course, a couple of days after Bruno arrives at the university, there is a brutal murder in the grounds and he is tasked with investigating it….
One of the first things I will say about this novel is that, whilst it is a bit more slow-paced than Parris’ “Sacrilege”, it’s a very atmospheric and compelling detective story that could easily rival some of C. J. Sansom’s earlier “Shardlake” novels. In addition to the traditional detective story thing of setting most of the story in one claustrophobic location (eg: Oxford), this novel also includes some suspsenful and gripping spy thriller elements too. Even so, this is slightly more of a detective story than a thriller.
The novel’s detective elements are pretty interesting too, with Bruno finding himself on the trail of a serial killer who kills their victims in ways reminiscent of the famous religious martyrs of the time. The investigation itself remains a fairly constant thing throughout the novel and, although some of the clues that Bruno finds seem a little bit contrived, there is usually a logical explanation for them and they help to keep the story moving at a fairly decent pace. Plus, of course, the gloomy, rainy spires of Oxford are the perfect setting for a detective story too 🙂
Likewise, whilst the novel’s spy thriller elements aren’t emphasised to the same extent that they are in Parris’ “Sacrilege”, they still help to add a bit of thrillingly suspenseful drama to the story. In addition to a few secret codes, clandestine meetings and suspenseful scenes of snooping, there are also some quite literal “cloak and dagger” moments later in the story that really help to keep the denouement fairly gripping. Even so, this novel is more of a detective story than a thriller.
Like in a lot of novels set in Elizabethan times, the fractious religious politics of the time play a rather large part in this story and also help to add a rather ominous atmosphere to the story too. In a genius move, Parris ensures that Bruno doesn’t really take too much of a side in these religious disputes, which allows for both of the major Christian denominations of the time to be depicted in an equally critical way.
In terms of the characters, they’re fairly good. Not only is Bruno a fairly interesting protagonist, but he often finds himself in situations where he is unsure of who he can trust, which helps to add suspense to the story. The novel’s cast of background characters all come across as reasonably realistic people, who almost all have some kind of tragedy or secret in their lives. This really helps to emphasise the harsh nature of the time the story is set in, in addition to adding a bit of extra mystery to the story too.
In terms of the writing, the novel’s first-person narration is very well-written. Like in C.J.Sansom’s “Shardlake” novels, most of the story’s narration is kept fairly “timeless”, with only a few olde-worlde phrases added occasionally to give the story flavour. This allows the story to remain readable and move at a decent pace. Plus, like with a lot of historical novels, there’s also a fair amount of emphasis on atmospheric descriptions and dialogue too.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is ok. Although, at 474 pages long, it could have possibly been trimmed a bit, it never really felt too long. Likewise, although the story remains fairly moderately-paced until some of the more fast-paced scenes later in the story, the story’s underlying mystery and the general atmosphere of the story really help to keep these slower parts of the story compelling.
All in all, this is a really intriguing and atmospheric detective novel. Yes, it isn’t as fast-paced as Parris’ “Sacrilege”, but it is still a reasonably compelling historical mystery story that fans of C.J.Sansom will probably enjoy 🙂
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four.