In Augsburg, Lord Walter Pendennis watches horrified as a runaway cart tramples his wife, then listens with even greater horror when she makes a deathbed confession of treason. Lady Pendennis had been about to act as a courier for seditious English Catholics. Conceiving a plan worthy of his Italian contemporary Machiavelli, Walter, an Elizabethan spy, approaches his friend Lady Susanna Appleton (Face Down Under the Wych Elm, 2000, etc.)—coincidentally in Hamburg with her lover, merchant Nick Baldwin—and asks her to impersonate his wife in order to infiltrate the circle of traitors awaiting Lady Pendennis in England. Despite Baldwin’s objections, Susanna delivers a coded message to the Earl of Northumberland and joins his household. Meanwhile, Baldwin, discovering that Lady Pendennis’s death was not what it seemed, returns to England to rescue Susanna, who is dodging poisoned turnip soup, sabotaged saddles, sharpened arrows, and an inquisitive cousin of Lady Pendennis. Walter interferes when Baldwin summons Susanna’s household to help him as Northumberland and Westmoreland—and their rebellious wives—attempt a misguided military coup. But the rebellion disintegrates, evidently without even requiring Pendennis’s machinations, which have simply left Susanna even more vulnerable.
Elizabeth I’s early reign, constantly on the verge of civil and world war, provides as many tangled loyalties and violent maneuverings as the Cold War, and Emerson brings a refreshing distaff perspective to the spy thriller. But Susanna could use some of James Bond’s derring-do: 007 would never have waited for all his friends from previous novels to come rescue him.