Friday, April 9, 2010


By S.J. Parris

Doubleday, $25.95

448 pages


No wonder the Tudor period of English history fascinates readers. It has everything: a tyrannical king with six wives, menaced - and menacing - princesses determined to sit on the throne, wily politicians to aid them, and new ideas to foster and justify their ambitions. Chief of these were new ideas about religion.

They inspired Henry VIII to put himself at the head of the English church instead of the pope and to transfer the church’s vast wealth to his own treasury. They inspired his Catholic daughter, Mary, to burn Protestants, and the pope to declare his Protestant daughter, Elizabeth I, a bastard worthy of assassination.

By 1583, the year in which S.J. Parris’ novel “Heresy” is set, Elizabeth and Sir Francis Walsingham had created a formidable spy network to seek out Catholics aiming at her life. Those who escaped often went to France to be trained as missionary priests and then returned to England to minister to their persecuted co-religionists. If they were caught, their fate was dire indeed.

Giordano Bruno, the hero of “Heresy,” knew what it was like to be persecuted for one’s beliefs. He was an Italian polymath credited with being the first person to conceptualize the universe as infinite and to explain that the sun is only one of an infinite number of independently moving heavenly bodies. He also was a fervent explorer of the hermetic philosophy of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, which he believed might give humans a godlike insight into the nature of the world.

For holding these ideas, he was proclaimed a heretic by the Inquisition. To escape its attentions, he fled from his monastery, eventually making his way to England, where Sir Philip Sidney brought him to Walsingham’s attention. Hoping to find a lost volume of the works of Hermes Trismegistus, Bruno is bound for Lincoln College, Oxford. Walsingham thinks this sojourn will enable him to spot traitorous Catholics and recruits him as a spy.

At roughly this point, Ms. Parris kicks up the pace of “Heresy,” which grafts a powerful murder mystery onto the novel of academia. This mixed genre unlocks rich opportunities, using the conundrums of the killings to explore problems about choices. “Heresy’s” distinguished forebear, Dorothy L. Sayers’ “Gaudy Night,” similarly set in the presumed quiet of an Oxford college, posed questions about the married versus the academic life; Giordano Bruno, excommunicated for rational beliefs about the universe, tackles questions about whether religious belief can justify the cruelty and brutality with which it is defended.

His emphatically negative answer comes only after many tightly plotted pages in which two college fellows and a student are savagely killed and Bruno’s own life is twice terrifyingly threatened, once by a bookseller who belongs to Oxford’s Catholic community and once by its priest.

This complex and carefully controlled plot is the greatest strength of “Heresy,” not least because it springs credibly from the characters. These include the cold, cautious, time-server Rector John Underhill; Bruno’s bitter antagonist Dr. Slythurst; Cobbett, the college porter; and, most important, Jenkes the bookseller and Thomas Allen, son of an exposed Catholic fellow of the college. Sophia Underhill, the rector’s beautiful and educated daughter, is less satisfactory because she is largely a collection of qualities bundled together only to help Ms. Parris move the story along.

Another less-than-satisfying aspect of the novel is that the murders and Bruno’s discovery of Oxford’s Catholics take place over just five or six days - a breakneck pace that serves no useful narrative purpose and is scarcely credible. In particular, it makes Bruno’s tedious detailed descriptions of traversing this lane and that street laughable because it is impossible that he could find his way with such specificity given he is a stranger to Oxford.

While this cartographic detail is distracting, readers would benefit from more upfront detail about religious conflicts in Elizabethan England. These become clear at the end of the novel, but this information could well have been offered earlier.

Instead, “Heresy” begins with an account of Bruno’s flight from an Italian monastery, where his interest in the work of Hermes Trismegistus has exposed him to the abbot’s wrath. This opening suggests that the novel will be concerned with his search for the missing Trismegistus volume.

In fact, the topic is quickly abandoned, appearing only briefly when Jenkes tempts Bruno with the promise of the book. The evocation of hermetic knowledge and also the episode in which Bruno unravels a code written in orange juice seem largely irrelevant to Ms. Parris’ story - though supposedly secret Renaissance knowledge has been the stuff of popular historical fiction since Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” soared up the best-seller charts.

All historical fiction assumes that we are interested in past lives. Giordano Bruno’s was extraordinary. He was a gifted thinker, equally interested in what was discoverable by mathematical logic and what was recoverable from the past. Unfortunately, apart from the initial references to hermeticism, we see little of his thinking.

And while Ms. Parris explains the life of 16th-century Oxford colleges and dresses her characters in doublets and hose instead of jeans and T-shirts, she makes no sustained attempt to evoke the texture of life. The 16th century and its brutal religious and political conflicts become a mere backdrop to a murder mystery that just as easily could have been set in any other era.

Readers who want to know more about Bruno’s ideas or Walsingham’s spies or England in 1583 or who just want a more sharply focused novel may find themselves frustrated by “Heresy,” while those who like to immerse themselves in a good tale and care little for the number of pages it takes to tell will undoubtedly enjoy this book.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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