A Murder by Any Name is set in 1585, a time when England was providing arms and support to the Dutch in their fight against Spain, the King of Spain had already begun building his great armada and the English government was ever alert to plots against the life of Queen Elizabeth I. The story begins with the murder of Elizabeth’s newest Lady in Waiting, Lady Cecily Carew. She has been found on the altar of the Chapel Royal at Westminster, lain out like a funeral effigy. This murder seems to strike at heart of Elizabeth’s court, and those whose greatest duty is to protect Elizabeth fear that she is the ultimate target.
Nicholas Holt, the younger brother of the Earl of Blackwell, is called on to investigate. Nick has been reluctantly drawn into Sir Francis Walsingham’s intelligence network to protect his family whose loyalty is suspect because of their adherence to Catholicism. When a second Lady in Waiting is murdered, uncovering the identity of the murderer and bringing him to justice become a matter of urgency.
Nick Holt is an immediately likeable character who walks easily through all levels of society. He is the owner of a Bankside tavern, the Black Sheep, run by his boyhood friend and former manservant John Stockton and John’s wife Maggie. He has also developed close friendships with Kat, a brothel owner who has experienced some of the worst that can be done by men to women, and with Jewish physicians Eli and Rivkah, refugees from persecution in Spain, who quietly try to alleviate the pains of those around them. Nick’s closest companion is a massive Irish wolfhound, Hector, a wonderful creature who even this confirmed cat person came to love.
Nick displays a compassion for those less fortunate that is not common in those of his class and time but is plausible given his experience of life. Intelligent and observant, the friendships he has made and those he has brushed shoulders with have brought him an awareness of the ‘the misery around him … the great gulf between the haves and the much more numerous have-nots.’
Suzanne M Wolfe does not shy away from the harshness of life in 16th century England – extreme poverty and great wealth side by side, exploitation and cruelty, the willingness of the mob to seek scapegoats in those forced to live on the margins of society. The Elizabethan world is vividly created in a matter of sentences.
Two blocks from the bridge, they began to hear the rumbling of carts, the shouts of drovers and stall owners selling their wares, the fretful bleating of sheep and mournful lowing of cattle, the hum and buzz of a multitude of voices gossiping, haggling, berating children or husbands, giving orders, calling out to friends—the deafening, intoxicating, hubbub of the busiest road in London. (pp.70-71)
London Bridge was quiet, the shops having taken in their wares and put up their shutters, only the faint creaking of cart wheels and the muffled clink-clink of a horse’s harness breaking the silence. A carter, a gray shape hunched over the reins, with a piece of sacking cowling his head and shoulders, raised a hand in greeting. (p.241)
As the novel progresses, it becomes an absolute page-turner. The dialogue has a slight modern touch but this works well as it brings an immediacy and sense of reality to the story. This thoroughly enjoyable novel is the first of Suzanne M Wolfe’s Elizabethan Spy Mystery series.
However. I almost didn’t get beyond the first chapter. Wolfe does with this novel what is common to murder mysteries, a very personable character, usually a woman, is introduced and within a few pages the reader comes to care about about her. Then she is murdered. I just hate it – as a reader I feel betrayed (perhaps I do allow myself to get a bit too involved in what I read). What lifts A Murder by Any Name above so many other murder mysteries is that Lady Cecily Carew is not simply a device to set an investigation running. We never lose sight of the woman who has been murdered, and we see the ragged hole her death has created in the lives of those who cared for her. Nick Holt is not just solving a mystery, he is seeking justice for the dead. The whole novel is underpinned by a deep sense of humanity and compassion – I absolutely recommend it.