25 April, 2007

The Conscience of the King: Henry Gresham and the Shakespeare Conspiracy, by Martin Stephen. Book review

Edition reviewed: Little, Brown, 2003, ISBN 0-316-86002-6

Set in London and Cambridge in 1612-1613, at the court of King James I/VI* and in the slightly seedy underworld of London’s thriving theatre scene. The main characters, Sir Henry Gresham, his wife Jane and his faithful servant Mannion, are all fictional. Numerous historical figures feature as secondary characters, including William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, James I/VI, Francis Bacon and Robert Cecil.

Sir Henry Gresham, gentleman and secret agent extraordinaire, is commissioned by the dying Robert Cecil to retrieve some compromising letters written by King James to his (homosexual) lover. Gresham knows the letters are only part of something much darker, connected in some unknown way with the vigorous and unruly new force of London’s theatres. Someone has already tried to murder actor and writer William Shakespeare, and Gresham himself and his wife are attacked on a visit to the Globe theatre. As Gresham unravels the net of deadly intrigue, a secret is revealed that reaches to the highest in the land, and that threatens the lives of Gresham, his beloved wife and even their two small children.

The Conscience of the King is a fast-paced spy thriller with an intricate plot and plenty of (often violent) action. It is told in straightforward prose with modern language and dialogue that doesn’t get in the way of the plot. If Tamburlaine Must Die was long on literary elegance and rather short on story, The Conscience of the King is the opposite way round.

The Conscience of the King should delight lovers of historical puzzles, cover-ups and conspiracy theories. Who really wrote the plays of Shakespeare? When and how did Christopher Marlowe really die? Why did the Globe Theatre really burn down in 1613? (No, of course the answers aren’t ‘Shakespeare’, ‘in a Deptford brawl in 1593’ or ‘by accident’. That would be much too simple). The author weaves these questions and their inventive answers into an espionage thriller with his fictional hero Henry Gresham at its heart. Spy thrillers are uniquely accommodating for fictional characters who interact decisively with real events and people. As long as the story stays mostly in the shadow-world behind the scenes, it doesn’t have to look for gaps in the historical records, since the whole premise is that the official version of history is not telling the whole truth. Naturally the fictional spy and his deeds would have been airbrushed out of the records, so the spy thriller has tremendous scope for invention. The Conscience of the King leaps into the possibilities with glee.

The characterisation is vivid and rather larger-than-life. Most of the politicians are thoroughly unpleasant (no great surprise there, perhaps), and the villain is an evil lunatic with not much in the way of redeeming features. Mannion is a paragon of loyalty and Gresham’s wife Jane seems almost too good to be true – beautiful, spirited, clever, courageous and loving. Gresham frequently reflects that he can’t believe his luck, and I’m afraid I had some trouble believing it too. Gresham himself is a sort of Jacobean James Bond. Handsome, rich, athletic, fearless, clever, ruthless, able to make a full recovery from serious injury, expert at violence and a master of intrigue and deception. I have the impression that male readers are supposed to identify with him and female readers are supposed to swoon. I’m afraid I didn’t swoon, though I can’t figure out why. One interesting contradiction in Gresham’s character is that he loves his wife and children dearly, yet he is hooked on the excitement of danger even though he knows this exposes his family to risk as his enemies will try to strike at him through them. Jane confronts him with this once, but then immediately apologises and backs away. I would have liked to see more of this dichotomy. James Bond was hardly a family man, and that inherent conflict has the potential to make Gresham an intriguing character. As the book is part of an ongoing series, perhaps it will be developed further elsewhere.

Apposite quotations from the King James Bible and the plays and poetry of Shakespeare at the head of each chapter add a neat touch. The epilogue, featuring a future scholar ‘discovering’ a lost letter from William Shakespeare among the Gresham archives in a Cambridge library seemed to me to be an unnecessary embellishment.

Action-packed spy thriller set at the court of King James I/VI in 17th-century England, with a James Bond-style hero and a plethora of historical conspiracy theories.

*James Stuart, son of Mary Queen of Scots and her second husband Lord Darnley, was King James VI of Scotland and King James I of England.


Bernita said...

When you mention spies, I wonder immediately about Walsingham.

Susan Higginbotham said...

This sounds fun!

I never seem to swoon over a character when I'm expected to. Maybe I'm just perverse.

Carla said...

Bernita - this is set after Walsingham's day, but the spy systems and some of the spies are inherited from him.

Susan - it's a fun read. Swooning or not probably reflects personal taste, e.g. alpha-male types often don't do a lot for me. Wasn't it Georgette Heyer who said that no woman in her right mind would want to live with some of her heroes?

Rick said...

Even though I know the imperatives of thrillers - That would be much too simple - I'd have a struggle getting past the someone-else-wrote-Shakespeare thing. If I were plowing this field, I'd make it a double-reverse where it turned out that Will wrote his own stuff after all!

Carla said...

Rick - I'm trying not to give away the plot! It's not as simple as X-really-wrote-Shakespeare, either. I did say the author had an inventive solution :-)

Kathryn Warner said...

This sounds like something I'd really enjoy. In fact, I might go and order it from Amazon right now! Hmm, wonder if I'll end up swooning over Gresham...;) To be honest, he does sound like the kind of character I might be prone to swooning over. (I swoon quite easily.)

Carla said...

Alianore - hope you enjoy it! I'll be interested to hear what you think.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Lol, I always swoon over the 'wrong' character, not the one the author set up for swooning.

Looks like my To Buy When I Have Money-list has just got another book on it. :)

Rick said...

Gresham himself is a sort of Jacobean James Bond.

I have never (shock!) read any of Dunnett's Lymond books, but supposedly she was explicitly inspired by Bond. Have you read the Lymonds, and if so how do they compare (as characters, books, whatever).

The whole concept of a 16th/17th c. Bond does seem something of a natural, because the era seemed quite given to espionage and the like - much more so than the 18th or even 19th. Bernita already mentioned Walsingham.

I wonder if the prevalence of espionage and covert ops goes along with ideological struggle and a sense of very high stakes, in contrast to the royal-sport element of late 17th and 18th century conflicts.

Carla said...

Gabriele - me too, which I think is why I tend to get on better with third-person narratives where I have a choice of characters to take a fancy to!

Rick - I've read the first two of the Lymond Chronicles. I didn't know there was supposed to be an explicit James Bond connection. I wouldn't have thought of it. There's a superficial resemblance in that Lymond is a spy and soldier, handsome, good at everything, (almost) always one step ahead of the enemy and with an astonishing ability to heal from serious wounds. I find Lymond a good deal more complex and interesting than Bond (either film-Bond or the Bond of Fleming's books, of which I've read half a dozen or so). The plots in the Lymond books are a lot more complex and multilayered than Bond plots, too.

I think every era had its spies and skullduggery, right back to the Horse of Troy. There's a discussion on Alianore's current comment thread about the possibility that Maud Mortimer (wife of Roger Mortimer Snr) was a spy for Henry III/Edward I in their defeat of Simon de Montfort at Evesham, for example.

You're right that the Elizabethan/Jacobean era seems to be particularly associated with espionage. I wonder if that's because the two most famous Plots in British history, Mary Queen of Scots and the Babington Plot and the Gunpowder Plot, both occurred quite close together in that era. Gives the impression that there must have been a lot of it about at the time :-) Also, both have the frisson of the Catholics as the Enemy Within, which turns up again and again (Reds under the bed and so forth) and so sits quite easily in the popular imagination - 'ideological struggle' as you put it. Whether it's just that spying had unusual prominence, because of the two Plots that hit the headlines within a generation of each other, or whether there actually was more spying going on in the 16th/17th century than in the periods before and after is a moot point. By definition, espionage is secret so it's hard to get the denominator!

Bernita said...

Amd you could add to that the claim that one or more British spies sailed on the Armada.

Carla said...

Bernita - I seem to remember seeing something about another Henry Gresham novel that had something to do with Armada - maybe he was the spy?

Rick said...

I find Lymond a good deal more complex and interesting than Bond (either film-Bond or the Bond of Fleming's books, of which I've read half a dozen or so). The plots in the Lymond books are a lot more complex and multilayered than Bond plots, too.

That just makes Lymond a better Bond! Dunnett was a much richer and more textured writer - I read most of the Niccolo books, though I faded when the main female character went from annoying to unbelievable. But I really should belly up to the bar and read Lymond.

Cherry Popcorn said...

Wow.. this must be a heavy read! I must work hard to read it one day! =)

Carla said...

Rick - A better Bond, maybe. Depends on one's definition of 'better', no? Fleming needs a lot less concentration than Dorothy Dunnett! I've only read one of the Niccolo series, and I liked Lymond better. I found the mercantile background to Niccolo interesting, but didn't warm to Niccolo/Claes for some reason.

Princess Shin - hello, and thanks for dropping by. Gresham is well worth reading; hope you enjoy it!