Brilliant historical page-turner

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S. W. Perry’s novels featuring physician Nicholas Shelby and tavern owner Bianca Merton have fast become one of my favourite historical mystery series. I’ve loved all three previous books – The Angel’s Mark, The Serpent’s Mark and The Saracen’s Mark. Although The Heretic’s Mark is the fourth in the series, the author has ensured it can be enjoyed by new readers and established fans alike thanks to brief recaps of events from previous books and sketches of the main characters.

Aside from Nicholas and Bianca, amongst those making a return appearance are Rose and Ned Monckton, now charged with overseeing the rebuilding of the Jackdaw tavern following its dramatic destruction at the end of the previous book. Such is Ned’s gratitude to both Bianca and Nicholas for the new life they’ve made possible, that Ned decides to try to discover the person responsible for denouncing Nicholas as a co-conspirator in a plot against the Queen.

No historical mystery set in the reign of Elizabeth I would be complete without a member of the Cecil family featuring in the plot and in this case it’s Sir Robert Cecil. Nicholas is hoping that having treated Cecil’s son, he may be able to call on Cecil’s help should it be needed. However, perhaps you can never be quite sure with one of the Cecils.

As fans of the series have come to expect, the book vividly conjures up the sights, sounds – and smells – of 16th century London. However, the need to seek refuge from their unknown enemy allows the author to transport Nicholas and Bianca to a whole new landscape. Having travelled across the Narrow Sea to Den Bosch in Brabant, two significant events occur. Firstly, Nicholas catches sight of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych, The Last Judgment, and is a witness to a brutal attack. Secondly, he and Bianca encounter a strange young woman, Hella Mass, whose joins them on their arduous journey along the pilgrim route towards Italy.

In Hella, the author has created an enigma, possibly a monster, but most certainly an unforgettable character. Is she a latter day Cassandra whose predictions of impending doom are destined to be ignored, a delusional young woman damaged by her traumatic experiences who should be pitied not reviled, or a skilled manipulator and charlatan? You’ll have to read the book to find out. Whichever it is, there’s certainly no love lost between Hella and Bianca who quickly tires of Hella’s predictions, especially when she believes them to have turned personal. As Bianca observes, ‘There is only so much a woman with blisters on her feet, who’s sure she stinks of mule, and has a mountain range ahead of her to cross, can suffer with equanimity.‘

Although initially the result of a forced departure from England, before long Nicholas finds himself enjoying the journey through Europe. ‘Here, on the path down to the northern shore of Lake Geneva, the air is sharper, more bracing even than a tub of cold Thames water, more cleansing than the stinking fug he breathes in the narrow lanes of London.’ And for Bianca, the journey gives her the freedom to practice her Catholic faith openly.

Alongside the account of Nicholas and Bianca’s journey, there are regular updates on the progress of Ned’s investigation back in London. Another storyline involves Bianca’s cousin, Bruno Barrani, who has a bold scheme to acquire an object that he hopes will bring him both wealth and powerful patronage. The arrival of Nicholas and Bianca in Padua, the city of Bianca’s birth, sees the convergence of a number of plot lines as result of which dramatic events ensue. To borrow from the musical Kiss Me Kate, it’s not so much a case of “I’ve come to wive it wealthily in Padua” as “I’ve come to knife them steathily in Padua“.

A multitude of twists and turns had me at more than one than point silently entreating the author, ‘No! You can’t end a chapter like that!’ The book builds to a wonderfully dramatic climax that makes full use of the historic sites of Padua and the city’s traditions. And I’ll freely admit the closing chapters left me a little tearful.

Fans of the series will be delighted to learn The Heretic’s Mark is another historical page-turner from the pen of S. W. Perry. And to readers looking for a new historical mystery series to follow, I can only say ‘Get thee to a bookshop’. I can’t wait for the next instalment.