The Jesuit Letter by Dean Hamilton – Review

the-jesuit-letter-cover1The Jesuit Letter

Dean Hamilton

365 pages

Published by TyburnTree Publishing, 2014

ISBN 9780993917400

The Historical Novel Society recently selected The Jesuit Letter as Editor’s Choice for their winter issue, and long-listed the book for the Historical Novel Society Indie Award.

Author Dean Hamilton’s book, The Jesuit Letter, set in summer 1575, is the first book in a series about Englishman Christopher Tyburn. We learn from back story that four years earlier as a young scholar, Tyburn left Cambridge University to join Queen Elizabeth’s army in support of Protestant rebels in the Netherlands. The rebels were in bloody religious warfare with their Catholic Spanish masters. Tyburn survived the cruel conflict by his wits and his sword, barely cheating death.

The story begins with Tyburn returned from war and working as a player with a troupe of entertainers travelling by caravan from London to Strafford, Warwickshire. Late at night the rowdy thespians discover a fellow-player’s murdered body on a dark road. Around the dead man’s shoulders is the handsome cloak he’d loaned to Tyburn earlier that day; and in his hand, a waxy Papist amulet. Thugs had spied Tyburn wearing his friend’s borrowed cloak while intercepting a coded letter between a Jesuit priest and an unknown correspondent. Tyburn realizes the hideous roadside death that killed his friend was meant for him. How can he right this injustice?

Tyburn is known by his fellows as a gripper, an Elizabethan term for someone who is curious and tenacious. While those around him don’t always understand his motives, Hamilton shows the reader a flawed protagonist with underlying decency and sense of fair play.

img_1492It helps to know a little background. Although avarice among wealthy landowners underscored the 1558 – 1603 reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the Elizabethan period was one of England’s most glorious eras, an age of discovery and exploration. Central to Hamilton’s theme in The Jesuit Letter, is Elizabeth’s establishment of the dominant Protestant Church of England.

In her sister’s earlier reign, Catholic Queen Mary established the Catholic Church’s supremacy, which led to the persecution and execution of resistant Protestants, considered heretics and disloyal to the Crown. When religious supremacy reversed with Elizabeth’s Protestant ascendancy, Elizabeth chose tolerance for practicing Catholics, insisting only on their loyalty to her, and discretion in their worship. That leniency would change over the years.

Hamilton’s prologue introduces us to the secretive behavior of wealthy Catholic landowner, Edward Arden. He hires and acts as protector to a Catholic priest, Hugh Hall. The priest conducts secret masses at Arden’s manor home. Prominent Protestant neighbours resent Arden. They in turn hire thugs to intercept his letters to a Jesuit priest, to prove to Queen Elizabeth that Arden’s clandestine actions are disloyal to his oath to the Crown, and therefore treasonous and punishable by death. Providing evidence of Catholicism (often obtained unlawfully) could lead to the Crown confiscating Arden’s family lands and removing his titles. A grateful Queen was known to award those same lands to conniving and snitching neighbours.

Thrown into this cauldron is a writ issued by Pope Pius sanctioning the right of Catholics in England to deprive Elizabeth of her throne. The Pope sends undercover Jesuit priests throughout England to expand Catholic influence. Finally, Elizabeth orders all Jesuits and Catholic priests be driven from the kingdom.

img_1494It’s at this point of history that the story in The Jesuit Letter begins, narrowing larger themes of religion and persecution to the affected lives of players, townspeople, minor officials and ruffians in Warwickshire. A whiff of suspicion about a Jesuit priest’s correspondence between wealthy Arden and the Pope’s emissaries unleashes an evil plot.

Hamilton cleverly includes characters that lived in that era: 11-year old William Shakespeare; prominent landowner, Edward Arden, and his hired priest, Hugh Hall, who is thinly disguised as a gardener; and despicable Richard Topcliffe, a sadistic aristocrat who relishes the hunt for Catholic sympathizers. The Earl of Leicester, known advisor of Queen Elizabeth (and lover) appears, too.

We wonder why this well-educated but impoverished returning soldier is a player with the Earl of Worcester’s Men travelling troupe. It isn’t until the last few pages that we discover the depth of the plot. Suffice to say that performing troupes had far-ranging mobility in Elizabethan times. Wealthy patrons arranged for troupes’ flags, liveries, letters and writs to protect them from Bailiffs and Puritans. The rich hired players to entertain in manor houses, and the poor clustered in local inn yards, enthralled by costume and song. Tyburn’s early education and steady demeanour allow him to pass comfortably between wealthy and poor alike. Although players are poorly regarded in a laboring society, they offer lively diversions with political songs, Morrish dances and playacting at a time when very few can read or write.

Hamilton’s plotting is masterful. Through flashbacks and third person perspectives he leads the reader through intrigue and near impossible situations. Minor characters, often thugs and thieves play roles to advance the story. Wealthy aristocrats plot devious schemes, hiring unscrupulous back alley ruffians to carry out dirty deeds for a few sovereigns. We peek into the contrasts between arduous workaday merchants, tanners and farmers toiling for bread, severely limited by the whims of the prosperous and privileged. The poor are hopelessly poor, the merchants hold tightly to emerging powers, and Puritans add severity to morality.

img_1496Much of the action takes place in the market town of Stratford situated on the Avon River. Hamilton introduces a distinct Elizabethan atmosphere with colourful settings in cobbled inn yards and dingy public houses where patrons complain the ale tastes more like piss. The players’ caravan traverses moonlit, rutted roads through pastoral fields. Thugs populate filthy back alleys. Merchants and councilmen ensure successful markets by tightening their strict codes. Rich and powerful disdain all.

Eleven-year old Will Shakespeare plays an important companion role in Tyburn’s path to discover the truth behind the plot of the greedy, grasping deBrage family and salacious Richard Topcliffe. Balancing many characters of varying backgrounds is a talent Hamilton writes convincingly. He feeds the reader just enough information in twenty-one chapters to make us eager to read on. Tension builds in each chapter, making readers fear there is no resolution to desperate escapes and maltreatment of innocent victims. There is a thread of romance for Tyburn in this story, which at times seems impossible to fulfill.

The climax of the story is well crafted. Hamilton keeps the reader on the edge in a final showdown between good and evil. I want to shout: Don’t go in there, for a nail-biting scene I feared would turn the tables on our hero.

Hamilton has a gift for capturing the language of the Elizabethan period. Only dedicated research could make believable old terms (with explanatory footnotes). Whether through curses, pleadings, teasing or descriptive passages, this even-handed sprinkling never gets in the way, only enhances.

img_1495Sir Thomas Lucy:

“The infernal machinations of the Papists and their anti-Christ Pius are legion. They would overthrow our Blessed Sovereign and place a reign of terror and devil-worship in her place. They would burn the righteous and lift high the traitors that lurk amongst us. They would,” he spat, “ place a Spaniard or that bitch-queen Mary on England’s throne.” Later … “Despite our exquisite queen’s expressions of tolerance for their heresies, or more like because of it, English Papists are growing in numbers. Clemency! Hah! It’s a fool’s policy. They breed treason like whores breed bastards. Show me a Papist and I will show you one with a liar’s visage, deformed of countenance and of evil manner. Vipers breed vipers, and we must ferret out this particular nest and expunge it”.

Tyburn is a likeable character: taciturn, discreet, principled and loyal. He brings out these qualities in his accomplices. He drives himself to unravel mysteries and expose plotters implicating him in their dark schemes. We root for him. We want him to get the girl in the end. We want him to protect children and the wronged. The Jesuit Letter is a satisfying read.

A 5-page sneak preview of Hamilton’s 2016 book that continues Tyburn’s exploits, titled, Thieves Castle, and named for a fictional London gang, presents at the end of the book. I’m curious about the troubles Hamilton imagines for Tyburn in the second of this series of historical fiction.

13995045Interview with Dean Hamilton

How did you publish your book?

TyburnTree Publishing is my own publishing name. I decided to create a self-publishing identity. The basic process you follow in any self-publishing endeavor is: Write. Edit. Rewrite. Edit again. Edit again. Edit again (and so on) until you reach the point where you think you have a viable book. Where that point lies is dependent on the author.

With self-publishing you own the entirety of the process. The end results, along with the mistakes, are dependent on you. How much work a self-published author puts into ensuring the quality of the end result may vary considerably. In my case, I made the decision to self-publish after sending out about 35 – 40 agent queries on my finished work. I found the lack of response disheartening, so rather than continue to reduce my own morale and confidence in my writing, I decided to move forward and self-publish.

Why did you choose Kickstarter for your project?

Crowd-funding projects offer many different sites, but the two most prominent were Kickstarter and IndieGo-Go. The key difference between them is that Kickstarter forced me to set a specific fiscal goal. If I failed to meet the set budgeted goal, I would receive nothing. I felt the discipline of a set goal would force me to develop the project and focus on my work. With IndieGo-go you keep whatever funds you raise. Running a crowdsourcing campaign of any type is a tremendous amount of work in a very short time frame.

I used the raised funds for hiring a professional editor and a professional graphic designer to develop the cover. At the end of the day I raised just over $3000 from about 45 backers, all of whom invested in the development of the book. It was important to me that the book should be of the highest possible quality, to ensure readers received the best possible reading experience for their money. At the end of the day, self-publishing is a huge amount of work but intensely gratifying when you can hold your book in your hand.

What about the Elizabethan period appeals to you as a writer?

The Elizabethan era sits at the cusp of what could be considered the rise of the modern era at the end of the medieval world. The New World was being discovered. There were new schools of thought in art, literature and science. The Renaissance exploded across Europe, and in particular England, with the rise of the early theatre and Shakespeare. This environment spoke of tremendous cultural and societal flux.

As a writer, there is an endless fascination with the colour, ambiance and well-documented characters that sprang forth in the Elizabethan era. One of the things I’ve tried to do in my work is reflect a world outside the court and the nobility. Most fiction embedded in the Elizabethan era tends to be bodice-ripping tales of Court intrigue, set amidst the silken splendor of palaces. Mine tends to hang about in ale-soaked taverns, muddy streets and fetid back-alleys where cold steel by lantern light offers redemption or grim death.

What is your method for plotting the story?

The seeds of the Jesuit Letter sprang out of reading Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, a biography of William Shakespeare. I ran across some of the questions related to how much exposure Shakespeare had as a child to the many travelling theatre troupes that rolled through Stratford; coupled with the notes about the sudden reversal of his father, John Shakespeare’s economic position after 1575 and linkages to his supposed Catholicism. That led me to pulling various threads together including the timely arrival of a theatre troupe along with a heinous murder. The more intricate aspects of the plot were threaded together over a three-year period of intensive research about the era.

Your use Elizabethan language very effectively. How did you go about researching for The Jesuit Letter?

My research involved a great deal of reading of original source documents, plus the creation of a fairly extensive glossary, along with pulling from existing works. I ended up with an extensive library on my shelves at home and a large annotated vocabulary spreadsheet.

Dean Hamilton works as a marketing professional in Toronto, Ontario. He is married with a son. His novella Black Dog won second place in Inkitt’s “Reclaim Time” story competition. The Historical Novel Society recently chose The Jesuit Letter as their Editor’s Choice selection for their winter issue and currently long-listed the book for the Historical Novel Society Indie Award. He is currently working on the second in the Christopher Tyburn series, Thieves Castle due in 2016.

See his Elizabethan blog: http://www.tyburntree.blogspot.com

Twitter: Tyburn__Tree

The Jesuit Letter available:

Amazon.com (or Amazon.ca , UK etc.)

Print Version: http://amzn.to/1LTtQOe

Kindle: http://amzn.to/1PqYlNS

Chapters /Indigo /Kobo

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