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CARPE LIBRUM: Gwenyfar goes gaga for an Elizabethan spy drama

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Lookout, Eno, Bull City), and a pair of well-regarded literary magazines out of UNCW, it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literary publishing. More so, it shows the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title or an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

S. J. Parris
Pegasus Crime, 2020, 484 pgs.

“I’m sorry sweetheart, I have a date with an Elizabethan spy tonight.”

I tried to let Jock down easy.

“So, how far along are you?” Jock nodded at the new “Bruno book,” as I refer to the books in S. J. Parris’ thriller series. “I thought you would be finished with it by now.”

“I am trying really hard to read it slowly, which is much more difficult than reading it quickly. But I tore through the other five, and I know I failed to make some of the connections and pick up on details or Easter eggs because I was so excited.”

I shook my head.

“This is much harder than it looks. Restraint is not my strong point.”

“What is this one about?”

“Do you remember those absurd piece-of-crap trailers that ran last year at Cinematique for the ‘untold story’ of ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’? Margot Robbie was in them.”

“Not really,” Jock replied.

“Well, the film was trying to portray Mary, Queen of Scot’s execution as some great untold tale, to be revealed for the first time—at least that was the thrust of the trailer. Anyway, for the rest of us who have actually participated in the history of Western civilization for the last 450-ish years [Mary died in 1587], this story is not a surprise, nor is it hidden. It just requires a bit of effort.”

“Bitter, party of one?” Jock chuckled.

“Sorry, I’m just frustrated. The book is excellent; thank you for asking. Bruno is in trouble. He’s at The Curtain, the theater owned by Burbage.”

“Is he at a Shakespeare play?”

“No,” I replied.

Too early. Shakespeare didn’t move to The Curtain until the late 1590s.

“Is he being framed?”

“Let’s say ‘set up.’ And Sophia has shown up again.”

“Ah. That’s the lady from the first book who is mad at him for saving her life, right?”

I nodded, a look of surprise clearly on my face.

“See? I do pay attention when you talk.”

Jock grinned and headed for the exit before sticking his head back in the door.

“Hold on, I thought you left Bruno in Paris?”

“Well, there was a small problem with him starting a riot at the university in Paris. Something about Aristotle that ended with violence.”

“Gone are the days that students riot about Aristotle…” Jock nodded sardonically and headed back toward his project.

There are very few books I preorder and await with bated breath. For the most part, I am quite content to continue working my way through the vast backlog of my “to-be-read’ pile, which consumes portions of two houses and multiple vehicles. I frequently reread favorites, going back to visit with old friends, or finding things I missed.

With Parris’ “Bruno books,” that is exactly what is going on. They are filled with wonderful detail and carefully dropped references and innuendo for scholars of the time period—or easy-to-miss Easter eggs for those in the know. They are also incredibly fast-paced, tightly plotted suspense novels that I just cannot put down.

The series’ protagonist is Giordano Bruno. The real Giordano Bruno was an excommunicated Dominican friar in the late 1500s. He was a brilliant thinker, scholar and author. Parris takes the bones of his life—his friendship with Philip Sidney, his time in England, his work for the French ambassador, his time-traveling Europe—as the cover story for his work spying for Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham.

The entry opens with a letter written by Queen Mary that would result in the execution of a queen. In a clever bit of dramatic irony, the readers know it is Mary, but the characters do not know if it will be her or Elizabeth. Despite historical hindsight, Parris inspires doubt, concern and real fear for the safety of her characters, each of whom may have chosen the wrong side of history. That is true skill as a writer. The audience knows Mary dies—but whew! My stomach was in knots with worry for Bruno and his companions.

In this case, Bruno is asked to infiltrate a conspiracy to free Mary and execute Elizabeth. To do this, he poses as “Father Prado,” a priest sent from Spain to join the plot. Along the way, he is also supposed to solve the brutal murder of Clara, one of the other spies for Walsingham, and to ferret out a double agent. Things go from difficult to near impossible when the real Father Prado escapes from Walsingham’s clutches and runs into a Jesuit priest he knew when they were both young. The priest has Bruno knocked out and tied up in the attic of a whore house, where he attempts an exorcism to help heal Bruno of his heresy—which is obviously brought on by demons. And that’s just the rising action.

At every turn, Parris ratchets up the tension by making things harder and harder on Bruno. Eventually, my hands (and the book in their grasp) was actually shaking with worry. If that isn’t a job well done by a writer, I don’t know what is.

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