And so, as I said I would, I read the second volume of Anna Castle’s Francis wonderful Francis Bacon series.* In Death by Disputation the action moves from London to Cambridge, with Tom Clarady installed at Corpus Christi college – ostensibly to get his degree. But of course, there is more to it: Tom is there as Bacon and Lord Burleigh’s intelligencer, to uncover a Puritan conspiracy against Queen, State, and Church. Who is smuggling incendiary Puritan tracts from the Low Countries, rallying religious malcontents and generally raising mischief? And then Tom’s tutor** – the man who informed Lord Burleigh in the first place – is found murdered, and Tom’s commission suddenly becomes a good deal riskier…
And enter Christopher Marlowe, another tutor and a poet, as alarming as he is brilliant, passionately demanding justice for the murdered man. Except, what he claims to be his personal stakes in the investigation would also make an excellent motive, and Marlowe becomes Tom’s first suspect – although he soon comes to share that distinction with the Puritans from a nearby village, the meddlesome head of Corpus Christi and half the college faculty.
How will it all turn out? Will the culprit be brought to justice? And the traitor? Well, to be honest, by the time we got there I didn’t care all that much, because I was so busy enjoying the rest of the book. As with the first instalment, the whodunit is there – with more than a tinge of espionage, this time – but it is hardly the core of the book. To me, at least, the real delight resides in the characters, the setting and the language. Corpus Christi, Cambridge, is just colourfully brought to life, and college life, with its customs, peculiarities and routine, is made to matter very much to the plot. And all is told in an engaging, ironic voice with just the right amount of Elizabethan flavour.
But the characters… oh, the characters! There is a rich and varied cast, including teachers, students, lovely women, Puritans in several degrees of rabidness, servants, poets and farmers… And then Tom, Trumpet and Bacon are back from Book One. I am not sure I’m overly fond of Trumpet, and Bacon is mostly present through the letters he writes to Tom, but Tom himself is a wonderful character. He is growing from a bungling pup into a more thoughtful young man – but not too much yet, and not in great haste. Lusty, laughing and eager, the irrepressible privateer’s lad is still there, and the way his friends in London misinterpret his intention is downright funny. My favourite, though, is Marlowe. I wondered what Anna Castle would make of him – and the answer is: an excellent job. Castle’s Kit is a clever, passionate man, far less thick-skinned than he would have Tom and everyone else believe him. One has a sense that he was a little too successful in building himself an unpleasant reputation – and now, no matter how devil-may-care he acts, he is the very tiniest bit uncomfortable with it. And yet he will act on, and to see him and Tom gradually and grudgingly form a sort of friendship was the best part of the book. I also very much enjoyed the glimpse of Marlowe’s Cambridge years, as a budding poet and an impatient tutor with a questionable reputation
In the end, while I stopped caring about the whodunit soon enough, and I occasionally wished that Bacon’s letters wouldn’t read like small conferences on Elizabethan Cambridge,*** I thoroughly loved the stage Ms. Castle set, and the characters she put on it.
* And no – I didn’t wait for a Reading Week. I just started reading the books I’d set aside.
** Come to think of it, the victim in Book One was also Tom’s tutor… A rather dangerous position to fill, isn’t it?
*** And I know that Bacon is supposed to come across as more than a little pedantic – but Tom had been in Cambridge before – although in another college – and so the place and many of its quirks and workings can’t have been news to him, can they?