A historical novel re-creates life at the 16th-century court of Queen Elizabeth I via a 20th-century murder mystery involving a cache of valuable papers found in a tomb.
The year is 1579, and 16-year-old Anne Vavasour has successfully obtained her place at the court of Queen Elizabeth, “the Virgin Queen.” Anne has been raised for this. Schooled in accordance with the precepts of Roger Ascham, who tutored Elizabeth, Anne is both learned and self-confident, speaking and writing several languages and knowledgeable of “philosophy, history and literature.” She records her thoughts in her “commonplace book.” Fast-forward to 1992. Vicar Hamilton of St. Mary discovers a trove of papers, books, and scrolls while mucking around in the 300-year-old tombs beneath the ancient church that has been flooded by a stopped-up toilet. The vicar finds the papers (some of which appear to be a version of Macbeth penned by Shakespeare himself) in “the final resting place of” Lady Anne Vavasour, “benefactor of the old church and an ancestor of Mrs. Hamilton...the vicar’s late wife.” When the vicar is murdered, two amateur sleuths start hunting for clues—Stephen White, headmaster of St. George’s prep school and a student of history, the classics, and 16th-century English literature; and Margaret Hamilton, the vicar’s daughter, a BBC investigative reporter, and Stephen’s former fiancee. Casey (The Double Life of Laurence Oliphant, 2015) peppers his imaginative novel with tidbits on the development of writing in the Elizabethan era. Readers are treated to intriguing historical factoids: Sir Walter Raleigh’s twitch caused his uneven handwriting, resulting in typesetters making numerous typographical errors. Each of the central protagonists—the vicar, Margaret, and Stephen—is a well-drawn character. And the author’s prose is elegant, with evocative imagery: “She lowered herself smoothly into the chair across, touched her elbows onto the tabletop, and cradled her chin in her hands, leaning forward.” But readers may find themselves skimming over the excerpts of 16th-century poems and writings, which are arduous to pore through and slow the narrative momentum.
An engaging read with a plethora of captivating literary and historical details wrapped in a contemporary whodunit.