Author – S. J. Parris
Published – 2011
Genre – Historical crime fiction
I’m obviously a little late to this title, but I do like a good medieval murder mystery – and this certainly ticks all the boxes.
Initially opening with a prologue set in a Neapolitan monastery in 1576 we meet Giordano Bruno, a monk who doesn’t necessarily seem suited to the constraints of monastic life, and pretty quickly he is on the run from the Inquisition. The action then moves to London in 1583 where Bruno’s life has obviously taken a turn for the better. Having survived years on the run Bruno has managed to become associated with the French Court and a friend to Sir Philip Sidney. He and Sidney are heading to Oxford with a Polish dignitary, and most of the action takes place in the confines of an Oxford college.
This period in English history is one where religious conviction could put you on the wrong side of the law with some potentially horrific consequences for those found guilty of the wrong allegiance. In the pay of Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, Bruno finds himself torn between demonstrating his loyalty to his new patron and defending those whose misdemeanours seems small to him. Especially when Bruno intends to write his own book which would demonstrate theories which are even more extreme than those of Copernicus. In fact it’s in order to pursue a specific book to support his case that Bruno takes particular interest in the visit to Oxford. Not long into Bruno’s visit he is involved in the discovery of a gory death and becomes drawn into the search for an explanation, which takes on more significance as the body count rises.
Using the first person does set some restrictions on the way the story can be told, but it’s certainly my preference for making me feel more involved in the story, it’s particularly important that you like and can empathise with the main character – which is the case here. All the characters are well-written and believable, even those who only make fleeting appearances.
It’s impossible for me to review this book without drawing comparisons with CJ Sansom, and if you are a Sansom fan then I would be surprised if you didn’t enjoy Heresy. The location of the Oxford college works well and I was interested in the background and descriptions of what life was like within the college. For me this book was perhaps lighter on some of the historical detail that you might find in a Sansom title and I think that’s a positive. The slightly odd aspect is that Bruno is a real historical character and at least some aspects of the story are factual. Knowing how things turn out for Bruno it will be interesting to see if the series carries on in the same vein.
You can see another point of view over at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel.
Score – 4/5