An Elizabethan spy with much to hide balances family loyalties with his fealty to the queen.
Nicholas Holt, the younger brother of Robert, Earl of Blackwell, is a tavern owner, loyal friend, and spy who works for the ailing Sir Francis Walsingham. Therein lies Nick’s problem, for his relatives are recusant Catholics he must find ways to protect in these troubling times, when the queen's cousin Mary Stuart, although imprisoned, remains a magnet for plots to restore the Catholic faith to England. Ordered to spot and identify a Spanish spy, Nick follows the man he recognizes as Francesco del Toro to an Oxford tavern, where he’s appalled to see his brother Robert. Del Toro slips away, but Nick must stay. He also runs into Edmund Lovett, an acquaintance from his childhood and Oxford University who admits to working for the spy network of Robert Devereaux, second Earl of Essex and favorite of the queen, who flirts embarrassingly with the handsome, spoiled young man. Nick gets stuck with Edmund, who’s also returning to London. When they’re attacked on the road in what Nick suspects is an assassination attempt, Edmund comes to his aid. Much to Nick’s dismay, the queen orders him to help Essex find the killer he claims is trying to shut down his rival spy network even though it’s Walsingham’s agents who are really in danger. Among Essex’s agents are Lady Annie O’Neill, an Irish master of disguise, and Gavell and Stace, two stone-cold killers who suspect Nick of double-dealing. The few people Nick can trust are John Stockton, who runs Nick’s tavern; Kat, a well-connected madam; and Eli and Rivkah, twin Jewish doctors who escaped the Spanish Inquisition. As Nick and Hector, the faithful Irish wolfhound who’s helped him solve murders at the court (A Murder by Any Name, 2018, etc.), scour London, they narrowly escape assassination attempts as they try to roll up the Spanish spy network.
Wolfe makes deft use of historical facts in an exciting mystery with a pleasing climactic surprise.