Set in Cambridge in 1936, Corpus is Rory Clements’ first novel to depart from the Elizabethan era. At first glance it may not seem a promising set-up for an espionage thriller— from a comfy armchair in 2017, the abdication of Edward VIII feels a rather quaint and parochial affair compared to the horrors that followed—but Clements soon convinces. His Cambridge is a dense and smoky world where fascists and communists are operating as secret societies, with both sides recruiting idealistic students and plotting to destabilise England for their own gain.
The stakes are high, and Clements skilfully shows what the conflict between these two ideologies could do to a country by keeping the spectre of the Spanish Civil War looming in the background. The world is superbly evoked, from the growl of a Rudge Special motorbike to the enormous quantity of alcohol drunk. (Do not attempt to recreate any kind of “Withnail and I” drinking game while reading this novel.)
The list of characters and subplots is huge, and at times bewildering, but all have depth and there are more hits than misses. Best of all is the delightful Sophie von Isarbeck, a German aristocrat and socialite who is a friend to Wallis Simpson, a Nazi agent, and dominatrix prostitute. Unfortunately, though, the protagonists are pale and dull compared to the supporting cast and, while some of the plot turns are gripping, others are flimsy and one is outright ludicrous. Clements’ prose is also grey and mechanical, save for the occasional burst of flair that comes out of nowhere (Cambridge’s city and university are “host and worm intertwined, and yet the worm grown more magnificent than the host”). Clements has created a vivid and convincing tableau full of possibilities, but sadly this fairly sedate story does not do it justice.