In high school, one of my husband’s friends ruined Top Gun before Mark got to see it with one phrase: Don’t get attached to Goose. That phrase has become our household shorthand for spoilers, or mock spoilers.
The phrase returned to me recently when I was reading the latest entry in a newish historical crime series. I am a big fan of Tudor-era crime fiction — C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series, Rory Clements’ John Shakespeare series, Patricia Finney’s books, the David Becket/Simon Ames series under her own name as well as the Sir Robert Carey series under the pen name P.F. Chisholm — I devour them. After reading lots of biographies and novelizations of the various royals, it’s fun to see the action from around the edges and to imagine how life might have looked to an ordinary person, navigating the not-so-easy daily realities of life as well as the larger shifts in religious beliefs and power structures. There was certainly enough intrigue and ill will around the court during the reigns of both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I to come up with fodder for plausible crimes, aside from the never-ending human motives for murder (love, jealousy, money, etc.).
I was intrigued when S.J. Parris’ series debuted a few years back, with Heresy, a mystery set around real events, with her hero the real-life scholar and fugitive ex-monk Giordano Bruno. Bruno really did spent a couple years in England in the 1580s, the heart of the Elizabethan era. He may well have been an agent for spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham and in the books, he definitely is. Heresy was quickly followed by Prophecy and just out, a third volume, Sacrilege (which I was lucky enough to get as an advanced copy through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program). I thought this was the best installment yet in this series, and the book itself got better as it went along. All good. But I have one big problem. I don’t want to get attached to Bruno. Between reading the second and third volumes in this series, I read The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt, which includes a description of the real life Bruno’s fate and it is ugly. After being imprisoned for seven years by the Roman Inquisition, defiant to the end, he was declared a heretic and executed. By being burned alive. With his tongue “bridled,” which, according to some accounts, means he had a stake driven through his face, to keep him from addressing the crowd.
In any of these series, you get attached to your hero, flawed guy that he is: Matthew Shardlake, David Becket, Simon Ames, Sir Robert Carey, John Shakespeare. They’re the protagonists; we’re meant to identify with them and they’re often trying to navigate conflicting loyalties while protecting more vulnerable souls, making them even more sympathetic. But now I don’t want to identify too strongly with Bruno — because I know he’s heading for a prolonged and painful end. There’s also something of a contract in series crime fiction; as readers we expect our hero is going to resolve the problem and be around to take on the next one. So far, the books have generally conformed to that convention but if you’re dealing with the real-life Bruno’s chronology, it can’t continue for long. I wonder why Parris didn’t simply create a fictional hero based on Bruno — it would have given her scope for a lot more books if he could hang around England longer, for one thing. Perhaps she’ll exercise the fiction writer’s license and simply have Bruno head out into an alternate future, where he chooses not to return to Italy and avoids the Inquisition. For the sake of the fictional character and my attachment, I hope so. Otherwise I fear this series is not going to see too many more installments. Sacrilege is set in 1584 and we know Bruno left England in 1585.
My current reading is about another real-life Tudor-era figure who also met an early and unhappy end: I’m reading Bring Up the Bodies, the second in Hilary Mantel’s planned trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, the advisor to Henry VIII. But even though I know where he, too, is headed I don’t mind entering Cromwell’s mind and world. Maybe because it’s literary fiction or perhaps because it is based on real events not embroidering on known facts, like the Bruno series. Or maybe because I knew Cromwell’s fate from the beginning, and thus have been preparing myself all along. The third volume, which will presumably cover the Anne of Cleves disaster and Cromwell’s downfall, should be a doozy.