Heresy by S. J. Parris is an historical mystery set in Oxford in 1583. S.J. Parris is the pseudonym of writer Stephanie Merritt, who is a regular contributor to The Observer and The Guardian. Heresy is very reminiscent of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose as well as calling to mind the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters. It isn’t quite fast-paced enough to have as mass an appeal as a pop potboiler like The Da Vinci Code.
Parris has chosen real-life Renaissance man Giordano Bruno as her protagonist/detective. Bruno was a Dominican friar who eventually had to flee the religious order when he was discovered with heretical writings. He was a philosopher and scientist and eventually landed in the French court, where he enjoyed the patronage of King Henry III. In 1583 he traveled from France to England and lectured at Oxford, which is the time period that Parris has chosen to set her novel. The description of Oxford is meticulously detailed and the reader gets a sense of what it might have been like to wander through Oxford and its environs — even some of the seamier locations.
Bruno has come to Oxford to debate the controversial Copernican theory, but he is quickly embroiled in a multiple-murder mystery and may be, as an outsider to the closed academic community, the person best-suited to help unravel a series of grisly killings that are striking Oxford fellows. The murders are all staged to resemble the martyrdom of Catholic saints, including one tableau where a body has been shot full of arrows, like Saint Sebastian. Not only does Giordano have to sort out who may be behind the killings, but the lapsed Catholic soon finds himself on the trail of a Catholic secret society, and possibly falling in love with the beautiful daughter of the college rector, Sophia Underhill.
Bruno becomes our guide through Elizabethan-era Oxford, but somehow remains a cipher. As much as readers may root for Bruno as the plot develops, they may never grow to like him. Part of this is because he is forced, at many times, to be unnecessarily obtuse, in order to serve the mystery. He seems to have little awareness of the motivations of people around him and doesn’t really leap into action until quite late in the story. Other peripheral characters, such as the menacing Rowland Jenkes, the kindly gatekeeper Cobbett, and the full-of-personality Sir Philip Sidney and Gabriel Norris are far more faceted and interesting.
The hero of what is proposed to be a mystery series shouldn’t be on the dull side. It may be that the author was hesitant to mess too much with Bruno, as he was a real person. Parris also falters a bit with the character of Sophia, who is at first introduced as a “modern” woman, but whose actions soon seem to follow the lines of a lovesick romantic novel heroine. There is subtle humor in the novel, such as Cobbet’s mangy old cur having the name of “Bess.”
Parris does capture the absolute unrest and danger the religious schism caused in England, even many years into Elizabeth I’s reign. Catholics were forced to live under cover, much like Protestants did in the reign of Elizabeth’s sister Bloody Mary. Those found guilty of heresy, identified as a Papist, or Catholic, were subjected to a truly horrible death, which Parris is only too willing to describe in detail.
There is a subplot that concerns a very special book by Hermes Trismegistus, but it’s mostly forgotten as the gruesome staged murders and Bruno’s detection take center stage. Bruno’s spying for Secretary Francis Walsingham and the Elizabethan court opens the door for subsequent novels (the second novel Prophecy, has just been released in the U.S.), but unless the thrills get amped up, I’m not sure how much demand there would be for this series. In Heresy there is a bit too much concentration on the tortuous manners of deaths at Lincoln College at Oxford and less on fleshing out the character of Giordano Bruno. But Bruno moved on in his life, traveling and teaching and publishing his writings throughout Europe, so the series would have to as well.