by Martin Stephen
Edition reviewed: Little, Brown, 2003, ISBN 0-316-86002-6
Set in London and Cambridge in 1612-1613, at the court of King James I/VI* and in the slightly seedy underworld of London's thriving theatre scene. The main characters, Sir Henry Gresham, his wife Jane and his faithful servant Mannion, are all fictional. Numerous historical figures feature as secondary characters, including William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, James I/VI, Francis Bacon and Robert Cecil.
Sir Henry Gresham, gentleman and secret agent extraordinaire, is commissioned by the dying Robert Cecil to retrieve some compromising letters written by King James to his (homosexual) lover. Gresham knows the letters are only part of something much darker, connected in some unknown way with the vigorous and unruly new force of London's theatres. Someone has already tried to murder actor and writer William Shakespeare, and Gresham himself and his wife are attacked on a visit to the Globe theatre. As Gresham unravels the net of deadly intrigue, a secret is revealed that reaches to the highest in the land, and that threatens the lives of Gresham, his beloved wife and even their two small children.
The Conscience of the King is a fast-paced spy thriller with an intricate plot and plenty of (often violent) action. It is told in straightforward prose with modern language and dialogue that doesn't get in the way of the plot. If Tamburlaine Must Die was long on literary elegance and rather short on story, The Conscience of the King is the opposite way round.
The Conscience of the King should delight lovers of historical puzzles, cover-ups and conspiracy theories. Who really wrote the plays of Shakespeare? When and how did Christopher Marlowe really die? Why did the Globe Theatre really burn down in 1613? (No, of course the answers aren't 'Shakespeare', 'in a Deptford brawl in 1593' or 'by accident'. That would be much too simple). The author weaves these questions and their inventive answers into an espionage thriller with his fictional hero Henry Gresham at its heart. Spy thrillers are uniquely accommodating for fictional characters who interact decisively with real events and people. As long as the story stays mostly in the shadow-world behind the scenes, it doesn't have to look for gaps in the historical records, since the whole premise is that the official version of history is not telling the whole truth. Naturally the fictional spy and his deeds would have been airbrushed out of the records, so the spy thriller has tremendous scope for invention. The Conscience of the King leaps into the possibilities with glee.
The characterisation is vivid and rather larger-than-life. Most of the politicians are thoroughly unpleasant (no great surprise there, perhaps), and the villain is an evil lunatic with not much in the way of redeeming features. Mannion is a paragon of loyalty and Gresham's wife Jane seems almost too good to be true - beautiful, spirited, clever, courageous and loving. Gresham frequently reflects that he can't believe his luck, and I'm afraid I had some trouble believing it too. Gresham himself is a sort of Jacobean James Bond. Handsome, rich, athletic, fearless, clever, ruthless, able to make a full recovery from serious injury, expert at violence and a master of intrigue and deception. I have the impression that male readers are supposed to identify with him and female readers are supposed to swoon. I'm afraid I didn't swoon, though I can't figure out why. One interesting contradiction in Gresham's character is that he loves his wife and children dearly, yet he is hooked on the excitement of danger even though he knows this exposes his family to risk as his enemies will try to strike at him through them. Jane confronts him with this once, but then immediately apologises and backs away. I would have liked to see more of this dichotomy. Fictional spies are rarely family men, and that inherent conflict has the potential to make Gresham an intriguing character. As the book is part of an ongoing series, perhaps it will be developed further elsewhere.
Apposite quotations from the King James Bible and the plays and poetry of Shakespeare at the head of each chapter add a neat touch. The epilogue, featuring a future scholar 'discovering' a lost letter from William Shakespeare among the Gresham archives in a Cambridge library seemed to me to be an unnecessary embellishment.
Action-packed spy thriller set at the court of King James I/VI in 17th-century England, with a James Bond-style hero and a plethora of historical conspiracy theories.
*James Stuart, son of Mary Queen of Scots and her second husband Lord Darnley,
was King James VI of Scotland and King James I of England.