A Traitor’s Tears, released at the beginning of the month, is the twelfth book in Fiona Buckley’s Ursula Blanchard mystery series. Blanchard is an illegitimate half-sister of Elizabeth I who regularly finds herself stumbling upon mysteries and working for William Cecil and Frances Walsingham. In this case, what starts out as a murder investigation expands into a more complicated effort to bring Jesuits into Elizabeth’s England with the goal of putting Mary, Queen of Scots, on the English throne and restoring the country to Catholicism.
Lots of meaty possibilities there, but they weren’t realized. I’d fantasized about discovering something along the lines of Iain Pear’s An Instance of the Fingerpost (definitely on the “Essentials” shelf), but what I got was more like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone transported to the 16th Century—with little in the way of period language or detail.
Bottom line: this is your standard mass-market mystery novel and Buckley uses all the techniques you’d expect in such a publication.
• She breaks the flow of her narrative to give us heaping platters of visual details that tell us very little about the situations and characters the novel presents: Roger Brockley, my reliable manservant, who had been my resourceful companion in many times of danger, had a high forehead, lightly strewn with pale gold freckles, a receding hairline and very steady grey-blue eyes.
• She plugs previous volumes in the series: [John Ryder] had joined us on our last adventure, which had taken us into dangerous Spain. But for him, we might not have got out safely.
• She uses the predictable show-the-reader-what-the-narrator-looks-like-by-having-her-look-in-a-mirror move: As I prepared to set out, I looked at myself in a mirror and noticed how the years were changing me. My hair was still dark and glossy, but my eyes, which were hazel, had little lines around them and a wary expression.
• She tells us what one character has done by having a second character describe to the very one who did those things exactly what she did: ‘We saw you run from the garden,’ said Gladys, ‘and Dale was there all of a sudden pleading and crying. You tried to argue with them, but they took no heed of either of you.’ Though why a woman who’s just run into a house needs to be told what she saw and did once she got there is a question without a satisfactory answer.
• She plays the put-the-two-conspirators-in-a-room-together-and-just-wait-for-them-to-discuss-their-every-illegal-thought-and-action-in-detail card.
I’d been hoping for some interesting religious wrangling, a look at the political uses of faith in Elizabeth’s England, a rich discussion of the complicated relations between legitimate and “natural” children, a sense of how a woman in the 16th Century might have managed to carve out and maintain an independent existence. What I got was a competent, but predictable mass market paperback.
If you like leaving a book with interesting historical and ethical questions to mull over—which is how my tastes run—you’ll be disappointed with A Traitor’s Tears. If you want airplane reading or a book to carry about while you run errands—the literary equivalent of an episode of a sit-com—well, that’s what you’ll get.