Saturday, March 6, 2010

Heresy by SJ Parris

When I first saw the title, and read the description for Heresy by S.J. Parris, I thought “Fabulous! Another work of fiction portraying the Catholic Church as a fanatical bunch of self-flagellating creeps in hair shirts with overly-complicated plots to mislead the faithful. I just can’t get enough of that!”

Alas, I was doomed to disappointment. For while there is a self-flagellating, hair-shirt wearing priest in the offing, the creepiness and the over complicated plotting is pretty evenly spread around between the Catholics and the Protestants in this absorbing crime caper set in Elizabethan England. In fact, the only men of reason are the men of science and er, reason: the heretics of their time.
The hero of the novel, Giordano Bruno, is a former monk, ex-communicant, heretic, and on the run from the Spanish Inquisition. (And really, aren’t we all?) He finds himself enmeshed in a series of really nasty murders in Oxford, and is forced to help solve them in order to protect himself, his mission, and some people he has come to like. He is in Oxford on a sectarian mission, to smoke out secret Catholics, the faith he once embraced. And while he professes a loathing for his former faith, he gets glimpses of not only his former transcendence, but the ugliness that mars both the old and the new faiths when martyrdom becomes a prize.
Parris does a wonderful job of evoking Elizabethan England, particularly Oxford. The ugly irony of sectarian violence is echoed in the descriptions of time and place: the filthy, wet scholar’s gowns dragging through the mud; drinking fine wine out of oily wooden cups. And the slowly drawn tightened web of tension: the smell of a candle snuffed out just before one enters the room; footsteps on the cobbles behind you in the dark; dust motes in the air when an old velvet curtain is opened; a tableaux of horror carefully arranged in an ancient church.
Heresy has an intelligent and thoughtful protagonist, a skilled author, an absorbing storyline, and even a romance which was a surprise given most of the cast was clergy of some sort (and no, it did not involve any alter boys!).

I highly recommend this book. It is richly drawn, suspenseful, well-researched, and often witty. I hope we see more of the resourceful Dr. Bruno. I suspect he has quite a career ahead of him.

Random House
Format: Hardcover, 448 pages
On Sale: February 23, 2010 Price: $25.95 ISBN: 978-0-385-53128-3 (0-385-53128-1)

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