Queen and Country

Written by Shirley McKay
Review by Tracey Warr

Hew Cullen is a landowner and lawyer from Saint Andrews who finds himself – not entirely through his own volition – in London in the employ of Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham. Hew learns to decode ciphers and consorts with the family of the cryptographer, Thomas Phelippes. As a Scot, Hew is not entirely trusted by Walsingham, which enables him to retain a position betwixt and between in these fraught times around the murder of William, Prince of Orange, in the Netherlands and the lethal plots and counterplots as the fate of Mary Queen of Scots is decided. In the second part of the novel, Hew returns home to Saint Andrews, where he is tasked by young King James to solve the mystery of a strange painting.

This is the fifth Hew Cullen mystery, and for a reader unfamiliar with the previous books some of the references to how Hew ended up in London, and to the woman Clare, may be a little mystifying. The story is slow-paced and takes a long time to wind up its mysteries and a short time to unravel them. The writing is a little too well padded in parts and tells its tale rather opaquely. It is written in a curious, lyrical, archaic language that is occasionally striking and at other times a little irritating. There is rather too much exposition; nevertheless, this is a richly imagined tale, very well researched with some finely drawn minor characters, such as the deaf and dumb painter’s apprentice and the malevolent student, Roger, who is “puffed up and surquidous”.