I have no idea whether or not you can tell from my blogs that I absolutely adore reading thrillers. Not the ultra gory ones, but thrillers that make you think a bit; that draw you into a society that is different from the one you live in and ones that are filled with characters that could, at a pinch, be real. At 14 I was reading Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie and the romantic thrillers of Dorothy L Sayers and her posh amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey and his assistant Harriet Vane; by 20 it was more John le Carre and Michael Stewart and so on through the decades: P D James; Elizabeth George and her posh detective Inspector Lynley who happens to be the 8th Earl of somewhere; Alan Furst and many, many others until finally in the last decade I discovered Scandanavian police procedure! What a goldmine!
But I am not going to write at length about them because at roughly the same time I also found the historical thrillers. I suppose an early writer in this genre is Ellis Peters and the Cadfael series and Umberto Eco The Name of the Rose, but a more recent find is C J Sansom and his Shardlake novels, set during the reign of Henry VIII, the dissolution of the monasteries and all that; a time of foment and political uncertainty. Detection under the Tudors was not quite the same as today, Shardlake is a lawyer under the office run by Thomas Cromwell, a man he both admires and fears; reading augmented, of course, by the Hilary Mantel books about Thomas Cromwell (which I have blogged about). More recently still, I have discovered Rory Clements and his intelligencer John Shakespeare, brother of the more famous Will operating during the reign of Elizabeth I. Also a time of plots and counter-plots and general political and religious turmoil.
Those too I am going to leave on one side for I have just read a really marvellous book, not a novel, which covers ‘spiery’ and ‘intelligencing’ in Elizabeth I’s court, a book called The Watchers by Stephen Alford. While what this book is about is not strictly detective work in that these teams of people, mostly men, were working under strict control to seek out and find treacheries, heresies and such like before they were committed, the techniques that they developed were based on reading encrypted letters between ambassadors and their sovreigns; state secrets and the like and these are probably the bedrock of all detective work, even today. A world of darkness where informers and insurrectionists are working around each other, each burrowing into the other side’s secrets to prevent or to proceed. This book is the story of the historical actuality that underpins the novels from which we can derive such pleasure. The Golden Age of Elizabethan England which we learn about at school was one of contrast, marvellous new inventions, explorations and ideas flowed into and out of this island. But it was held together, not simply by the myth of the Virgin Queen but by a huge and complicated underworld of intelligence. This book shows quite clearly and brilliantly that nothing is new under the sun; political intrigue, bigotry, fear, bloodshed, war: it was going on then much the same as it does now. The weapons and methods might have been different but the causes and outcomes were very similar.