If Agatha Christie had written historical fiction, she might have devised something as deliciously convoluted as Redfern’s second (after the splendid The Music of the Spheres, 2001).
Her setting this time is early-17th-century London, to which musician and former mercenary solider Ned Warriner has just returned. Ned had fled England after being implicated in the escape from prosecution of a Catholic priest—one of many “enemies” of minions of King James dedicated to preventing any relaxation of aggression against Catholic Spain. Ned contrives a meeting with his former sweetheart Kate Revill, now unhappily married to a hunter of “recusants” (i.e., secret Catholics), Francis Pelham, and the mother of a young son who, she confides, is Ned’s child. Then Redfern’s dazzling plot really takes off. Ned had come into possession of an enigmatic letter, written partially in Latin, which promised gold to a certain “Auriel.” Intrigued by evidence of several Londoners’ quests for the philosopher’s stone and the alchemical secret of creating gold from base metals, Ned becomes enmeshed in interlocking intrigues that reach to the city’s less respectable corners, the royal court and the ingenuous figure of Prince Regent Henry, and the Tower of London, where once-eminent Sir Walter Raleigh now languishes as a political prisoner. The rich cast includes the Prince’s sinister Chief Clerk John Lovett and his wanton wife Sarah, Ned’s criminal boss brother Matthew, various tradespersons who keep turning up murdered, a scholarship-struck silversmith’s apprentice, a piratical sea captain, and a shadowy “traitor who had secretly aided the Spanish” and cunningly orchestrates the tale’s smashing climax. Over them all broods the mysterious figure of Elizabethan magus John Dee, whose trafficking with dark powers appears to have borne surpassingly strange fruit. It all ends with Ned’s rueful enlightenment, and the destruction of the illusion on which his perilous misadventure has been built.
Absolutely stunning. A model of the genre.