S.J. Parris' latest historical thriller is a pacey story of treachery and obsession

  • Execution, by S.J. Parris. HarperCollins, $35.

S. J. Parris is the pseudonym of British journalist and critic Stephanie Merritt. She has said she created S.J. Parris so that she could "develop a genre series alongside other books, and there is a long tradition of writers using pen names for crime fiction".

The result is her best selling series of historical thrillers, set in Elizabethan England, featuring Giordano Bruno, a lapsed Dominican monk declared a heretic by Rome and employed by Walsingham, Elizabeth 1's spy master.

Execution, the sixth in the series is set in 1586, the year of the Babington Plot to execute Elizabeth I and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots.

For Parris, the relationship between Elizabeth and Mary "contains so much human drama: jealousy, admiration, conflicted loyalties, family ties. A lot has been written about the two queens, but I wanted to explore what drove the men who plotted in Mary's name."

As Execution begins, Bruno arrives in England from Paris with a letter for Walsingham containing rumours of a "band of devout men in London committed to carrying out the execution of Queen Elizabeth", led by a catholic priest John Ballard and funded by the wealthy Anthony Babington.

However, Walsingham has already infiltrated the plot and is intercepting the letters to and from Mary Queen of Scots.

He calls her "that conniving Scottish witch. There she sits like a poisonous spider at the heart of her web . . . She protests her love for her cousin Elizabeth while her words and letters embroider plots of murder and insurrection for her devoted followers in France."

Complications have arisen.

Clara Poole, a young female agent, who Walsingham hoped would get close to Babington, has been found murdered and Mendoza, the ex-Spanish ambassador to England is sending a Jesuit priest with money and assurances of assistance from the Spanish King.

Walsingham wants Bruno to take the identity of the Spanish Jesuit, join the conspirators and, at the same time, discover who murdered Clara.

Parris says her aim in writing her historical thrillers is to research so that she can "understand the characters and find the detail that will allow me to create a plausible fictional version of them that remains true to what is known, but hopefully fleshes them out and makes them recognizable as real people to the reader".

She succeeds in Execution.

As Bruno begins his deception, the tension builds, as the danger of discovery is constantly present, in a fast moving, thrilling and disturbing story of treachery and obsession.

This story Treachery and obsession in the 16th century first appeared on The Canberra Times.