Rory Clements, Revenger, (London: John Murray, 2010)
(subtitled: ‘do you know who I’m related to?’)
It might sound churlish to dwell on an author’s use of Shakespeare in his historical fiction novels – after all, Clements isn’t the first, and won’t be the last. The trouble is, he invites this, pushing the envelope that much further by making his protagonist John Shakespeare – a fictitious older brother of our bard. I found it a distracting, retrograde step: it took about a quarter of the novel to overcome the dissonance it caused.
The great man’s cameo itself is fine. There seems to be a kick-back against the deification of Shakespeare across the genre, and this time whilst his personality is scarcely sketched out, he lacks street-sense, and definitely benefits from an elder brother to extract him from the potentially fatal pickle he has landed in. I preferred the subtler inclusion of a character who might or might not have been Christopher Marlowe.
But this is, in truth, a sideshow – and as I say, Clements only has himself to blame – in a novel populated by many recognisable historical figures. John Shakespeare was once an ‘intelligencer’. He now runs a school, but his retirement is far from peaceful: old antagonisms survive, and his troubled marriage to a headstrong Catholic woman is a serious chink in his defences, in the early 1590s.
As we all know, old spies never really retire, and it’s not long before he finds himself recruited by both sides of an invisible war. There are secret papers to find, loyalties to be tested and decided, violent thugs to combat, and a selection of seductive women wanting to be served. We’re also presented with the tantalising mystery of what happened to Drake’s Roanoke settlers, left at the mercy of the elements and the local tribes whilst their leader sailed back across the Atlantic for support and supplies. The history books tell us that by the time help arrived, the entire colony had disappeared. In the novel, one of those settlers seems to miraculously turn up in London, and this proves the catalyst for Shakespeare’s adventures.
The novel generally succeeds. The plot is pacy, the obvious baddies are bad, and as befits a ‘spy’ novel, there are a number of grey areas: characters who can’t be fully trusted, collateral damage, cover-ups of old actions, and a far bigger game that Shakespeare plays a relatively small, if vital, part in. The main characters are well enough fleshed out, John is likeable, and the historical setting competently dealt with – I especially liked a masque scene, and Clements’ exposition was overwhelmingly fluent.
If you can ignore the word ‘Shakespeare’ on every page, you should enjoy the book. Our man is less violent than Jack Reacher, less cerebral than George Smiley, but the story is strong enough for me to explore more novels in the series.