So I have a thing for History, Historical Fiction and Spies which means I’m always looking for books on a particular time period that combine those things. Over the past couple of years I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction dealing with Elizabethan spies. For example: The Watchers by Stephen Alford, Under the Molehill by John Bossy and The Queen’s Agent by John Cooper. However, I still had not found any historical fiction on Elizabethan spies. Then I found John Pilkington’s Marbeck and the Double-Dealer. This novel is set in the later half of Elizabeth I’s reign. England has been in a nearly constant state of war with Spain for years, the Queen might be getting a little fuzzy between the ears and her spy service has a mole. Robert Cecil Jr, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, calls in Marbeck aka John Sand. Cecil does this reluctantly since he considers Marbeck a loose canon and, to use his expression, a coxcomb but he knows Marbeck is loyal at least. Marbeck for his part is desperate for the work having botched his last job for Cecil and looking for a way to redeem himself. What starts as interviewing possible moles quickly turns into a wide ranging trip that takes him across the south coast of England, to Britteny and beyond.
The best thing about this book is the world. Pilkington draws the world of 1600s Europe so well that you do not even realize he is doing it half the time. You take in the sights and smells of London, you bump along the rough roads of France and set in some squalid alehouse in Dover as if you were really there. He also does a very good job of presenting the narrower world of 17th century espionage. You meet the spies who befriend political prisoners and then betray them. Gentry who pass on information they hear from the friends. There are Catholic spies around every corner in England and Protestant spies around every corner in France. All working for varying amounts of money. This world is what makes the book which is good because Marbeck himself leaves something to be desired as a spy (at least a fictional one). That’s not to say he isn’t a good character. He’s very believable as a 17th century man. He drinks too much, he gets into fights and is having affairs with women he shouldn’t even look at. He just doesn’t strike me as a spy. He’s not extremely smart or skilled in trade craft. He’s not even particularly over the top or unobtrusive in his personality. He’s biggest asset seems to be tenacity and being at the right place at the right time. So I recommend this book but just so you know you’ll be riding along with Marbeck as much to see 17th century Europe as to see what he does.