The name Giordano Bruno is carved deep into the gravestone of Inquisition heretics. He was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600 for supporting Copernicus’s heliocentric theory and for proposing that the universe is infinite. Stephanie Merritt, writing as S.J. Parris, creates a new persona for this medieval scholar – he is to be an agent in the pay of Elizabeth’s own spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham.
The story begins in 1583 as Bruno arrives at Oxford University, a visit he actually made. The visit’s overt purpose is to debate philosophy with local dons, the covert purpose to gather intelligence about subversive Catholic activity. The first gambit ends in monumental failure in a scene that Parris portrays brilliantly. The second is the meat of the story.
And it is as colorful, multi-layered, and criminally creative a story as any mystery lover could wish for. Three murders happen in quick succession, but they are not just murders; they are grizzly symbols left by a too-clever killer. The college’s rector appeals to Bruno for help. His hunt leads him into the heart of the clandestine Catholic community. In the end, and it looks very much like the end of him as well, Bruno unmasks the killer and emerges an ambivalent hero.
Heresy has all the elements of a great medieval mystery. The historical setting is rich in detail but does not overpower the story. There are gothic elements aplenty: cowl-hidden figures at candlelit midnight meetings, tower rooms, priest holes. Plus, the climax is harrowing and full of surprises. Best of all, though, are Heresy’s characters. Not a one is flat or uninteresting. From Cobbett the gatekeeper to the complex Bruno himself, Parris pours extraordinary care and human insight into her creations.
Heresy is the first in a series. I cannot wait for the next installment!