Thursday, May 27, 2010


An Historical Thriller
S.J. Parris

Stephanie Merritt, who unsuccessfully hides her real identity under the pen name S.J. Parris, used the visit of Italian astronomer, philosopher and radical thinker Giordano Bruno to Oxford University on 1583 as the setting for a story about religious persecution, murder and the role of women in Elizabethan England. Bruno is transformed into a spy, working for Queen Elizabeth's spy master Francis Walsingham, and a detective, solving the case of a series of bizarre murders done in imitation of the martyr stories in John Foxe's "Book of Martyrs."

During the reign of Elizabeth I, Catholics were suspected of treasonous conspiracies. It was believed that they were plotting to bring Mary, Queen of Scots, to the throne, to replace Elizabeth and restore Catholicism as the established church. Although Catholicism was officially tolerated, in fact, to be Catholic was to be suspected of treason. One thread in Heresy is the uncovering of a Catholic cell in Oxford, and the priest that they were hiding.

Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600, for his heretical, pantheistic, views, including his theory that the universe was infinite, with an infinite number of suns and infinite worlds. Copernicus' theory that the Earth revolved around the sun was not yet accepted, Bruno was a contemporary of Galleleo Gallelei, who would receive a much lighter sentence, house arrest, for his observations which confirmed Copernicus. Bruno was centuries ahead of his time in that regard. Heresy touches on his, at the time not fully formed, thoughts. Bruno finds himself in an internal conflict, working for Walsingham to root out heretical (in Elizabethan England) Catholics, while holding heretical (to everybody in that time) beliefs of his own and being under threat from Catholic authorities in his own country.

I found one character to be a bit disappointing, Sophia, the daughter of John Underhill, Rector of Lincoln College, who was educated along with her brother, a frequent user of the college's library and who took an interest in Bruno's esoteric knowledge. It turns out that she is looking for a love potion! What a let down. Her love interest is important to the plot but jeez, what a cheesy way to use her. Merritt/Parris touches on a kind of Elizabethan woman's liberation theme when she is first introduced but then backs way off. Historically that is probably for the best, though.

Underhill, Bruno, Walsingham, Philip Sidney and several other characters in the novel are real people, used for Merritt/Parris' own novelistic purposes, and Bruno did visit Oxford to lecture and unsuccessfully apply for a teaching position. John Foxe's book is real and was popular among the more radical "Puritan" protestants in England at that time. Heresy blends history with fiction in a believable way.

Oh, and the book gives Stephanie Merritt's real name in the "about the author" blurb. Why have a pen name then?

keywords: history, Elizabethan, crime fiction,Giordano Bruno


Post a Comment

Comments will be moderated - so keep your comments moderate!

OpenID users will have their blog links again, yay!