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Who dies, or kills, for their religion, nowadays? Fools, fanatics and the utterly deluded. But British history is awash with martyrs, for whom death and torture were a fair exchange for spiritual purity. There were not even any virgins on offer; just salvation.

In the 1580s a group of young Catholic aristocrats were plotting against Queen Elizabeth, fully aware that to be caught meant the rack, or worse. Then they would be hanged to the point of suffocation, cut down and emasculated, disembowelled, beheaded and cut into four pieces.

Their network was riddled with spies answerable to Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s formidable spy-master. Unknown to the plotters, chief of whom was Anthony Babington, Walsingham was seeking to use their plot to entrap Mary Queen of Scots into a fatal indiscretion.   

Plotting and counter-plotting alongside the historical characters in Holy Spy is John Shakespeare, the fictional creation of Rory Clements. Holy Spy is the seventh book in the series, which does not run in a strict chronological sequence. Shakespeare is the older brother of Will, who puts in the occasional cameo in the books – although not in this volume. This is a relief; Will’s appearances in previous books read like an unnecessary gimmick.

John Shakespeare is an “intelligencer” for Walsingham, which provides material enough without his famous brother popping up to proffer witty asides. In Holy Spy, John Shakespeare has infiltrated Babington’s group, the Pope’s White Sons, and is tasked with masterminding the counter-plot to entrap Mary Queen of Scots.

But Shakespeare is distracted. His former lover has been accused of murdering her wealthy husband. She is in hiding, and he must track down the real culprit before she is found and hanged. As he delves into the mystery he finds connections between the two cases, and uncovers a criminal conspiracy at the heart of the establishment.

Holy Spy comes heavily pushed as the Elizabethan equivalent of Shardlake, the wildly successful sleuthing Tudor lawyer from CJ Sansom. There are parallels; both writers recreate sixteenth Century London in vivid style. Both hone in on the excruciating and dangerous religious tensions which linger long after Henry V111’s violent schism from Rome. Both Shardlake and Shakespeare unravel mysteries which deftly weave the historical and the fictional.

But there are significant differences. Shardlake himself is more interesting – a cerebral and haunted man. Shakespeare is a little flat, in comparison, and we get very little sense of Walsingham – one of British history’s most intriguing personalities. But Clements compensates for any deficiencies in his central characters with an exuberant plot and dialogue which hums with Elizabethan slang, profanity and wit. Shakespeare lurks in murkier corners than Shardlake, and the supporting cast of whores, thieves and gangsters are wonderfully conjured.

Holy Spy is intended to be read as a thriller – but we know the fate of Babington’s Plot and its doomed queen. The murderous sub-plot allows Clements to inject pace and mystery, but the joining of the two strands feel clunky in parts. Despite this structural challenge, Clements delivers a bawdy, engaging romp of a book. One to complement Shardlake, perhaps, rather than to usurp him.