Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Post by Suzanne M. Wolfe, Author of The Course of All Treasons: An Elizabethan Spy Mystery

24 September 2020

Special Guest Post by Suzanne M. Wolfe, Author of The Course of All Treasons: An Elizabethan Spy Mystery

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

The Elizabethan court is beset by traitors at home and abroad as spies, rogues, and would-be usurpers of the throne vie for power.

I grew up in Didsbury, Manchester. My mother was a single mum who worked as a physiotherapist at a hospital during the day and at night took on private patients just to make ends meet. My brother was, naturally, involved in his own life.

So, in my loneliness, I turned to historical fiction for companionship—Joan Aiken, Henry Treece, Geoffrey Trease, Cynthia Harnett, and many others were among my favorite authors. Something about the way they brought forgotten—or at least distant—voices to my inner ear touched me deeply. As someone who often felt without a voice, I loved the way authors of historical fiction enabled us to hear those who otherwise were voiceless, rendered mute by a world which either ignored or misunderstood them.

Only recently did I come to realize that my love of historical fiction was rooted in a desire to listen for the voices of the past and the stories they could tell—whether it was the murmured conversation of courtiers waiting for a royal audience, bureaucratic lackeys whispering in the Queen’s ear, spies, playwrights, or poets—each of them saying, “I once lived as you now live.”

This is the reason why I love combining historical fact with fiction because fiction can raise the dead to life again much more vividly than historical textbooks. 

It was Elizabeth’s voice that inspired me to write my Elizabethan spy mystery series. So it felt only right to give her the opening line in the first novel, A Murder by Any Name (Crooked Lane Books, 2018). 

“God’s bollocks, girl. I’m freezing my tits off!”

The voice is imperious, irreverent, earthy—a far cry from the sentimentalized Hollywood portrayals of the Virgin Queen. My Queen Elizabeth would make a sailor blush. 

Elizabeth’s voice came to me fully articulated when I started writing this series, a voice singular enough to echo down the centuries through numerous documents and contemporary accounts. It reveals a woman who was witty, irreverent, scathing, vain, kind to her friends and ruthless to her enemies. It is the voice of Gloriana Regina, the last of the Tudor line.

Since childhood I’ve always been inspired by visits to historic sites. Last year I visited Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire and could see the indomitable Bess, much married and a close confidante of Queen Elizabeth, sweeping down the wide stone staircase barking orders, or presiding at the long oak dining table in the main hall calling for more wine. 

Touring the cavernous stone kitchens I could hear the great clamor of pots chinking, cooks yelling, the sizzle of meat and flare of flame during a banquet, see the men turning the spits before the enormous fireplaces, sweat dripping down their faces, the liveried servers carrying huge platters of swan, grouse, venison, and fish up the back stairs to the great hall. 

I could imagine Mary, Queen of Scots,—a confined “guest” at Hardwick Hall—sitting at her bedroom window staring out at the formal gardens, wondering how different her life would have been if only she had not married Lord Darnley or the equally disreputable Earl of Bothwell.

The sixteenth century is an age teeming with life and boisterous with a cacophony of voices. It is a savage age of political and religious turmoil where traitors were beheaded on Tower Hill and Jesuit priests were hung, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn. Chock full of treachery, paranoia, and superstition, the era provides plenty of grist for a historical novelist’s mill. Indeed, our contemporary experience of Covid-19 makes the recurrent outbreaks of plague in that period ominously relatable.

My protagonist, Nick Holt, the younger brother of the Earl of Blackwell, is from a prominent recusant Catholic family. That means that, although his family has sworn allegiance to a Protestant Queen, they are in constant danger of being accused of treasonous contact with Continental Catholicism and of secretly practicing their faith. 

Coerced into spying for the state by a not so subtle threat to arrest Nick’s brother on charges of treason (see first book in the series, A Murder by Any Name), Nick must tread a fine line between his allegiance to the Crown and loyalty to his family. 

The owner of The Black Sheep Tavern in Bankside, the notorious “red light” district of London on the southern bank of the Thames, Nick’s friends consist of a huge Irish wolfhound called Hector, an exiled Jewish brother and sister who practice medicine, his faithful friend John Stockton, and a host of social misfits including the young Will Shakespeare, Kat, the madam of a notorious brothel, and Codpiece, the Queen’s clever Fool. 

Despite his insalubrious Bankside neighbors, Nick is equally comfortable rubbing shoulders at court. He and the Queen have a deep mutual respect and Elizabeth trusts him to seek out the truth no matter where it will lead or who it will implicate, irrespective of rank. Perhaps Elizabeth sees in Nick a man who has no truck with the fops, toadies, and ladder-climbers who make up the bulk of Gloriana’s glittering court. 

Or perhaps it is because, as a recusant Catholic, he is an outsider to the intrigues and double-dealing of the court. For whatever reason, he is perfectly placed to investigate crimes both inside the court and in the realm. 

I hope you will consider joining Nick and his faithful hound, Hector, on their quest to seek justice—to give a voice to the voiceless.

Suzanne M. Wolfe

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About the Author

Suzanne M. Wolfe grew up in England and read English literature at Oxford University. Wolfe is the author of the novels The Confessions of X, winner of Christianity Today’s 2017 Book of the Year Award; Unveiling; and the first Elizabethan spy mystery, A Murder by Any Name, and the second in the series, The Course of All Treasons (Crooked Lane Books, 2020). She lives in the Pacific Northwest, US. Find out more at Suzanne's website and find her on Facebook and Twitter @SuzanneMWolfe

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