Written by DK Wilson — 19 May, 1536. Tower Green, London. The sizeable crowd of wealthy merchants, noblemen and clergy falls silent. Then something between a sigh and a groan escapes the audience as the specially appointed French swordsman swings his blade and decapitates a young woman who until recently had been the wife of the most powerful king in Europe. Thomas Treviot, a young goldsmith who has been required by protocol to witness the execution of Anne Boleyn, tries but fails to hold down his breakfast. It is with the judicial murder of Henry VIII’s second wife that we are launched into a novel which bestrides a fascinating and turbulent period of English history.
The problems besetting England are a toxic mix of religion, money and political power. On the one hand there is the King, his break with the Church of Rome, his shortage of money and his desperation for a male heir. Then we have a rebellion in the north of England, where thousands are threatening to march south to restore Catholicism. The third ingredient is growing group of influential men who seek to publish an English translation of the New Testament. Robert Packington is a well respected senior merchant, Thomas Treviot’s mentor, but also one of an underground group importing illegal copies of William Tyndale’s English gospel. When Packington is shot dead by an unknown assailant, Treviot vows to find the perpetrator.
In his search for justice Treviot becomes involved with a strange community of prostitutes and former monks in Southwark. His young wife has recently died, and when he takes on one of his new acquaintances – Lizzie Garney – to look after his infant son, the respectable burghers of the City of London are outraged. Still south of the river, Treviot encounters a sinister criminal called Doggett who, were he to be transported into the 1960s, would fit nicely into the gang war between the Krays and the Richardsons.
Treviot learns the name of his friend’s killer but as he blunders on he finds that he is trampling on very sensitive toes. When he gains protection from none other than Thomas Cromwell, the King’s powerful right-hand-man, his resolve to catch the killer is strengthened, but he is a political innocent all adrift in a sea of deceit, double-dealing and cynicism, where the only rule seems to be exitus acta probat – the result justifies the deed.
In one sense, the crime aspect of the story is incidental. Yes, if Wilson is to be believed, the murder of Robert Packington is the first recorded assassination by handgun. Yes, Treviot does his best to track down the murderer of his mentor. However, despite all his earnest endeavour, he’s no mastermind, and I was happier to engage with the political skulduggery and the glue pot of jealousy, guilt and betrayal which Wilson describes so successfully. In the end, the novel becomes just too tangled in its own sense of conspiracy, and it ends rather lamely. I would have loved more involvement from Lizzie who is the standout character in the book, and someone who could have been so much more than the standard tart-with-a-heart.
Wilson does avoid most of the dialogue pitfalls that await writers who set their characters in a time when spoken and written English was far, far different from the modern language. The book, with its impeccable period detail, will please lovers of historical drama, but those looking for an engrossing crime story may be disappointed. The title? It refers to the first of the apocalyptic quartet – “I looked, and behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.”
The First Horseman is released on 8 August.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars