1577, anti-James Bond, book review, Elizabeth I, Francis Walsingham, Greek fire, historical accuracy, historical fiction, intricate narrative, John Dee, Oliver Clements, Philosopher's Stone, plot-driven fiction, thriller, Tudors, Wars of Religion
Review: The Queen’s Men, by Oliver Clements
Atria, 2021. 397 pp. $27
One night in 1577, as Elizabeth I’s royal train proceeds through a forest, masked gunmen empty their arquebuses at her carriage and flee to safety. Miraculously, the queen survives, having providentially moved to a different carriage en route. But one of the ladies-in-waiting dies, and the brazen, nearly successful attempt at regicide — which must have been planned with care and intimate knowledge of Her Majesty’s travel plans — exposes the threat to her security and that of the kingdom.
What’s more, her principal private secretary, Francis Walsingham (not yet knighted), spymaster extraordinaire, has no idea who might have executed this bold deed, though he can guess why. It’s no secret that English Catholics, in league with Spanish and Flemish agents, would welcome Elizabeth’s death and the advent of Mary, Queen of Scots, to the English throne.
Much like the Cold War decades ago, Tudor England provides a vein of thriller ore, and Walsingham is the mother lode. He appears, with varying degrees of importance, in The Locksmith’s Daughter and Lamentation, to name only two examples, and the jacket copy for The Queen’s Men invokes MI6, a bit of a stretch. I think the arquebuses are another, but who am I to stand in the way of a good yarn?
To his credit, Clements offers a twist, refusing to hoe the same row that other authors have. The hero of this caper, the alleged first agent for MI6, isn’t Walsingham but John Dee, alchemist, philosopher, spy, and, apparently, a royal favorite. The anti-Bond, if you will, Dee is poor, badly dressed, less than suave, and more passionate about books than women. (Interestingly, he appears as a minor character in The King at the Edge of the World, as an herbalist.) With the help of Jane Frommond, lady-in-waiting and friend to the murdered young woman in the royal carriage, he provides Walsingham with necessary information, or tries to.
Frommond’s role is another anti-Bond quality, for she is more than a match for several of the men around her. Naturally, despite Dee’s and Frommond’s efforts to pass on their intelligence, barriers will keep interposing themselves, as “no — and furthermore” rears its dastardly head, in the tradition of all thrillers.
Dee has a commission from the crown to re-create Greek fire, a weapon known to the Byzantines but lost to history since. Fearing the Spanish fleet, Elizabeth’s advisors want Greek fire as the means to achieve naval parity. However, to obtain the necessary naphtha, the government must treat with the Turks, who now rule from Constantinople, and the diplomacy becomes both rather too easy and overly complicated. Throw in a subplot about a beautiful look-alike to Elizabeth, and you have enough implausibility to warrant an offer to purchase Tower Bridge.
Even so, The Queen’s Men is good fun, and two aspects kept me reading. First, the plot mechanism is so complex, like a Rube Goldberg watch, that you want to see how it manages to keep time. Secondly, Walsingham has his uses, not least the access to the seat of power and the ability to make crucial decisions. He’s also a foil for Dee, who, though an ardent patriot who loves his queen, has much on his mind besides the future of the realm—chiefly, the search for the philosopher’s stone. That eccentricity rounds him out a bit, though character takes second place here.
Walsingham, without that baggage, grounds the story in his political perspective, as with this passage, when the first, false reports reach him that Elizabeth has been assassinated:
He must destroy all trace of the network he has spent ten years creating. He must above all destroy that ledger of names of his secret service: Drake; Raleigh; Marlowe; Frobisher; even John Dee. If those names should fall into the hands of Mary’s agents, or even, God forbid, the Inquisition, then even the most awful days of the first Queen Mary’s reign — when the very air of London bloomed savory with the taste of cooked meat, and Smithfield was spotted black with rings of fatty ash that dogs licked at in the night — that will come to seem like a day in May.
That said, readers looking for historical accuracy or realism on any level will find them only intermittently. And well plotted though the novel is, a few circumstances fall by the wayside, tossed into the gutter as the story barrels along, unwilling to halt even one second for logic or common sense. But Clements is attempting to graft his tale onto a modern-day genre, and he’s willing to let the seams show. For readers who can accept that, The Queen’s Men makes worthy entertainment.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher through my work for Historical Novels Review, in which this post appeared in shorter, different form.