Monday, 15 June 2015

Marbeck and the Gunpowder Plot, by John Pilkington

Before he took to writing novels, John Pilkington wrote television scripts and plays for radio and theatre. Clearly, he has used the skills he learnt there in creating his historical thrillers: they are tightly plotted and full of reversals and surprises, with cliffhangers which are - literally, in the case of some of the characters - to die for!

It's obvious from the title of this novel (the fourth in the Marbeck series) that it features the famous gunpowder plot. Yet it's a tribute to Pilkington's writing that the outcome does not feel at all obvious; there is no loss of tension as you follow Marbeck's investigation. For Marbeck is an 'intelligencer' - a seventeenth century spy. His immediate master is called Monk, but he ultimately answers to Robert Cecil, spymaster first for Elizabeth and then for her successor, James. Marbeck discovers that there is a threat from Catholic insurgents, but he doesn't know what it is. He receives hints and clues from various sources, and it's a dangerous game piecing the story together and finding out who he can trust; the answer to that last question, of course, as in any good thriller, is very far from obvious.

The Tudor and early Stuart periods are so popular with writers that their significant movers and shakers have become familiar figures. Marbeck's world reminded me a little of that of C J Sansom's investigator, the lawyer Matthew Shardlake - the two are very different characters, but they operate in similar territories, though Shardlake is from the time of Henry V111. Cecil is a significant character in Watch the Lady, Elizabeth Fremantle's recently published novel, and he and his father appear in Philippa Gregory's novels about the Tradescants, Earthly Joys and Virgin Earth. And of course, the Tudor court and its dangerous politics are the subject of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.

So the murky world in which Marbeck operates is a familiar one. It's certainly familiar to Pilkington; he re-creates each setting with great assurance. He seems to know early Stuart London better than most people would know the London of today - but more than that, he knows the detail of everyday life: little details, such as that 'muscadine' and 'alicante' were among the tipples of the time. And he can paint a vivid picture for us of what the hiding place of a Catholic priest would have looked and smelled like, of the vaults underneath Parliament, or of the seedy back streets and lodging houses.

Unlike the rather fragile Shardlake, with his crooked back, Marbeck is physically tough. He's a skilled and ruthless fighter, and the body count rises as he pursues his investigations. But he has his areas of vulnerability too: in particular, there is his love for Meriel. The story of this is obviously carried over from previous books, and I'm not sure what the obstacles to it were: in this book, she tries to put him off, but it's clear to the reader that they love each other. He is convinced that he's lost her, but by the end, it seems that there may be hope. But nothing is resolved: the ending is a triumphant cliff-hanger, and the book is a gripping read.


  1. It sounds fascinating. It can't be easy, either, to write a novel about a well known historical event and have a hero who doesn't know about it.

  2. No. And as a reader, I found myself almost forgetting that I already knew the outcome of the plot - knowing the result didn't detract from the tension. That's clever, I think.