No One Has Clean Hands: An Interview with Novelist Suzanne M. Wolfe

The author of Elizabethan murder mysteries talks about writing dizzyingly fascinating historical fiction

Suzanne Wolfe’s C.V. is impressive: she read English Literature at Oxford University where she co-founded the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society; she served as Writer in Residence at Seattle Pacific University where she taught literature and creative writing for nearly two decades; and she was co-founder of Image, one of the premier journals of the arts and faith. And she’s also an award-winning novelist whose book The Confessions of X won the 2016 Book of the Year Award from Christianity Today. Her newest novel, The Course of All Treasons, an Elizabethan murder mystery set in England in 1586, is out now. Recently, Suzanne chatted with FORMA about the complicated nature of writing fiction that takes place during such a complex time in history.

In The Course of All Treasons, the second novel in your Elizabethan Spy Mystery series [book one, A Murder by Any Name, was published in 2018] there are so many different powerful and dangerous factions in play that it can be a little dizzying. How much of this stuff did you make up?

Not much. The period is a seething cauldron of intrigue, betrayal, and ambition. Not only was the country expecting a Spanish invasion at any minute but the threat of assassination of Queen Elizabeth was very real, especially after the papal bull of 1570, which excommunicated Elizabeth and released her Catholic subjects from obedience to the crown. 

This was a disaster for English Catholics as it meant that, theoretically, every single Catholic was a potential traitor. And it put Mary, Queen of Scots, squarely in the frame to usurp her cousin. Hence the Babington Plot, which sought to place Mary on the throne of England after Elizabeth had been murdered. 

The whole focus of Sir Francis Walsingham’s spy network in the 1580s was dedicated to finding and bringing to justice such traitors as the recusant Catholic Anthony Babington. My protagonist, Nick Holt, comes from a recusant Catholic family so he is in great peril. (More on that below.)

Like many people in Elizabethan society, he finds himself with conflicting loyalties—to his family, to his queen, to his faith. And most of the main characters in the novel are similarly compromised. Rivkah and Eli, for example, the Jewish doctors Nick befriends, are not only Jews but also from a country that is the sworn enemy of England. Then there is Annie O’Neill, from Ireland. Her country has been invaded by the English but she is a spy for Walsingham because she needs England’s help to reclaim her ancestral lands. 

In short, no one has clean hands. 

Weaving a fictional narrative through such a crowded period of history must be a challenge.

It is, but it is also very exciting. There’s just so much skullduggery going on that the mystery writer is almost spoiled for choice. The biggest challenge is to graft fiction onto historical fact so that the characters are not merely historical figures but become flesh and blood people struggling to make sense of their world. It’s also a challenge not to let the characters’ stories get overshadowed by famous events like the Babington Plot. On the other hand, you can’t ignore them either. This is why I chose to set the events of the Babington Plot off-stage and introduce a new character—Annie O’Neill—who plays a major role in that operation. That way I give a nod to historical events but also allow room for Nick to unravel a fictional mystery. It’s all a question of balance. 

Religion and politics exerted such power that many people found themselves with divided loyalties.

Elizabeth famously said that she did not intend to make windows of men’s souls, that she did not intend to persecute people for their private beliefs. But the papal bull encouraging Catholics to assassinate her instantly politicized private belief, turning all Catholics into potential traitors. Now Elizabeth felt she had no choice but to give Walsingham and Sir Robert Cecil permission to hunt down and kill Jesuits and those English Catholics, like Anthony Babington, who believed she was a heretic who ought to be removed from the throne in favor of Mary, Queen of Scots.

It is in this world that Nick must find a way to survive, a world in which his loyalties to the crown are already suspect by virtue of his family. He must tread a fine line between political expediency and his conscience. 

In a way, he lucks out, because his role as private sleuth for the queen allows him to bring villains to justice irrespective of their religious beliefs. A murderer is a murderer, whether Catholic or Protestant, rich or poor, male or female. 

Nick and Rivkah, though separated by religion and nationality, share a lot in common.

In Elizabethan England, there is no such thing as separation of Church and State. In fact, they are synonymous. This means that the practice of any faith not sanctioned by the crown is punishable by fines and even death.  

Nick comes from an aristocratic “Recusant” family, meaning that they have been secretly clinging to their Catholic faith, perhaps even harboring fugitive priests to say mass for them. Recusants who refused to attend the Church of England were subject to huge fines—or worse. As for Nick, as long as he attends services in the Church of England—and does not attend the mass or harbor Jesuit priests or does anything to aid the Catholic cause against Elizabeth—he is theoretically safe. However, as the Queen and her spymaster well know, his family may be less compliant, and so he is in constant danger of being accused of treason.  

The same goes for Rivkah and Eli, who are third generation converso Jews. What does that term mean? Simply put, their grandfather made the decision for the family to convert to Christianity in order to save it from the Spanish crown’s campaign of persecution. However, like many conversos, Eli and Rivkah continue to practice their faith in secret. This makes them extremely vulnerable to betrayal and is one of the reasons they have chosen to live in the criminal underground of Bankside—the disreputable part of London on the south bank of the Thames. 

This is also why Nick lives there and why The Black Sheep is an apt name for his tavern. All the inhabitants of Bankside are the black sheep of society.

This question of putting on a false mask raises the metaphor of acting. 

Absolutely. It is no coincidence that Shakespeare’s plays are filled with characters pretending to be other than themselves. This is one reason why Elizabethan society mistrusted actors—they were always playing someone else while hiding their true selves.

The theme of acting is at the center of The Course of All Treasons

Nick himself plays the dissolute younger son of an earl in part so he can travel freely between the lower classes of Bankside and the upper classes of the court. It is also a handy cover for his spy activity. He is witty and irreverent but, beneath this façade, he is a deeply serious man, well aware of the danger he is in. As he moves between Bankside south of the Thames to Whitehall on the northern bank either by wherry or by walking across London Bridge, the reader will often find Nick reflecting somberly on being caught between two worlds. 

This doubleness is what makes Nick interesting to me. He is not just your standard devil-may-care hero who always gets his man. He has a darker side and is all too aware of his failures. His personal life is full of contradictions; he is sleeping with Kat, the madam of a Bankside brothel, but he is deeply in love with Rivkah. He is working for Walsingham against his religion and against the country of his dearest love. No wonder he falls into occasional bouts of introspection—usually when he is crossing the Thames, the barrier that separates the opposing worlds of the court and Bankside.

Rivkah’s nickname is “Mouse,” not because she is timid, but because she had learned to be inconspicuous so she can hide in plain sight—a necessary survival skill for a Spanish Jew in London. 

Nowhere is this sense of play-acting more evident than at court. Essex plays the love-struck suitor to Elizabeth when at Whitehall, but his personality radically changes when he is at home at Leicester House. This makes him an enigma to Nick. 

Another enigma is Annie, who can become anyone she pleases through disguise and her consummate acting skills. 

Even Elizabeth plays the part of Gloriana, the Virgin Queen. We sometimes see a very different woman on those rare occasions Nick sees her alone. Everybody is acting out some kind of a part. 

As the Bard so aptly said: “All the world’s a stage.”

All this applies tenfold to a new character you’ve introduced, Annie O’Neill.

Annie has many conflicting loyalties and, depending on who you ask, is either a traitor or a patriot. As Codpiece (the wise Fool) reminds Nick—Annie is loyal to her clan rather than to her country of birth. The fact that she is a master of disguise only serves to obscure her loyalties. Nick nicknames her Protea after the god of the sea (and its changing forms), and struggles to understand her. 

Another reason I chose to make Annie a master of disguise was to give a female character the ability to cross social barriers and sexual stereotypes and take on roles that were only open to men in the sixteenth century. In this way, Annie is able to go places Rivkah, a Jewish woman, cannot go.   

Of course, there is always the figure of Elizabeth the First hovering over everything. Where does she stand on all these issues?

For her time, Elizabeth was surprisingly tolerant of Jews and Catholics. Her personal physician, Roderigo Lopez, was a Jew and she had many Catholic friends. In the early years of her reign, her rule reflected this tolerance. But all that changed in 1570 when a papal bull of excommunication effectively gave the green light for Catholics to assassinate her. 

After that, the civic and church authorities clamped down with increasing ferocity until it was treason to even hear the mass in private or hide a Jesuit priest. And Dr. Lopez was hung, drawn, and quartered in the 1590s after having been accused by Essex of trying to poison the Queen. It is safe to say that Elizabeth’s reign got darker and darker as the tolerance and optimism of the first years faded. 

I have always found that the most puzzling aspect of Elizabeth’s personality was her extreme favoritism towards Essex who, at the time they met in late 1586, was young enough to be her son. In Elizabeth’s youth, this type of flirtatiousness had cleverly kept a whole series of foreign suitors in play without any actual commitment. By the time Essex arrived on the scene, Elizabeth was in her fifties, and the spectacle of her flirtatiousness had become embarrassing and grotesque. 

If I had to pick one serious character flaw of this great queen, I would choose vanity. She demanded that her male courtiers preserve the illusion that she was, as Spencer rather obsequiously called her, the Fairie Queene. In her heart of hearts, I believe Elizabeth knew the truth. After all, she refused to look in a mirror from her late middle age to the time of her death.  

You write about the Queen but you also give us a number of characters right off the London streets. Some of these characters are quite memorable.

I certainly enjoy writing minor characters. They are usually of the poorer classes like Harold the Rat-Catcher, and this gives me a lot more freedom of expression as they are not confined by court protocol nor do they mask their true intentions due to overweening ambition like, for example, Essex. This gives me greater scope for comedy as well as highlighting the plight of the poor in Elizabethan times. And incidental minor characters don’t require a back-story so they are, frankly, much easier to write.

Are you working on the third novel in the series?

Yes. It is tentatively titled The Witching Time. Set in the summer of 1586 (the same year as the events in The Course of All Treasons), it follows the Queen on a royal progression to Oxford. There Nick witnesses a mob throwing a vagabond woman off Magdalen Bridge. He discovers that she is accused of murder by witchcraft and so begins Nick’s mission. In the process, he comes face to face with the plight of the poor, especially homeless women, and their vulnerability to charges of witchcraft. Naturally, our hero cannot sit idly by and just watch. 

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