Peter Tonkin on Shadow of Treason

The bestselling author talked to us about his latest novel set in the world of Tudor espionage.
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Peter Tonkin, can you first tell us about your latest Poley novel – and who Poley is?

Robert Poley (who appears on the historical record between 1568 and 1602) is one of the three men in the room with Christopher Marlowe on the evening of Wednesday, 30th May 1593 when he was killed – ostensibly by Ingram Frizer running a dagger several inches through his eye. Although the others, including Marlowe, seem to have been relatively minor players in Tudor espionage, Poley was of more considerable moment. It was Poley who had been instrumental in the unmasking of the Babington Plot of 1586, which led directly to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, and who seems to have worked directly for Walsingham, Burghley and eventually Robert Cecil.

What inspired you write a series that’s set during this period in history?

I wrote my minor thesis and my Master’s dissertation on Shakespeare and his theatre, proposing that Macbeth was structured not only on Classical tragic models but also on traditional English forms, especially the 3-part Everyman structure. My studies both in Queen’s Belfast and in the British Museum library were deeply and exclusively involved with the Tudor and Stuart periods, therefore.

Your ability to portray the perspectives of such varying characters from this period is fascinating. How do you ‘get into’ the character, so to speak?

My studies of Shakespeare and his period – Tudor and Stuart – required close study of a range of contemporary literature, particularly the drama. I acted in, and directed many of the plays I was studying the better to understand them and, therefore, came to understand the characters as presented by the contemporary playwrights almost by osmosis. Certainly, the way they think and speak often comes straight off the page or stage.

Guido Fawkes is a famous/infamous figure in English history; what led you to want to write about him?

My original intention was to focus solely on Poley, but as I worked – from early research onwards – I became more and more fascinated by Robin Catesby, Tom Wintour and Guido Fawkes in particular. Catesby as charismatic leader of course but (having been brought up on RAF bases for all of my formative years) on the two members of his group who were professional fighting men motivated not only (though powerfully) by religion and a sense of burning injustice, but also by duty and honour. Those last two, I feel, particularly on display when Fawkes holds out for an almost unprecedented period under torture in the Tower.

Are there any difficulties you encounter when writing novels that are based on such famous events? Do events constrain or inspire you?

Events inspire me. The sense of ‘being there’ is something I find irresistible. Hence my Roman series (Caesar’s Spies) which begins by following in as precise detail as I could manage, the events of the day leading to Caesar’s murder. As with Shadow of Treason, we know the outcome – but the narrative tension comes from watching men and women fighting increasingly desperately to change the course of history. But unexpected elements often intrude and are very welcome – such as the programme Reel Truth Science ‘The Gunpowder Plot’ where Richard Hammond shows what would have happened if Guido Fawkes had actually set off his 36 barrels of gunpowder. At once fascinating and salutary.

Shadow of Treason, like all your novels, is rich in detail and truly brings England to life during this time. Can you tell us how you go about researching your novels?

Truth to tell, I never really stop researching. I studied the Tudors and Stuarts for A Level History 55 years ago and have amassed a considerable library of volumes dealing with everything from sword-fighting to cooking; from Shakespeare’s Bawdy to Through Elizabethan Eyes. At the moment, because I am focussed on the Tudor and Stuart periods, these are what I keep a closest eye on – looking out (and bothering friends for) suggestions of first-rate resources, usually but not entirely secondary. Shadow of Treason is principally based on Antonia Fraser’s Faith and Treason, but also on the writings of King James, fathers Gerard and Tessimond, all of whom were witnesses to the events. Likewise, the final section of Shadow of the Tower is based on Matthew Lyons’ word-for-word reconstruction of Raleigh’s trial.

Will we be seeing another addition to The Queen’s Intelligencer series?

I am already researching Poley’s next case, Queen’s Intelligencer #4. I decided to go back to look at some of his earlier work, though, as with the 3 so far, I am planning to insert him into an actual historical situation he was NOT actually involved in as far as we know. But then, of course, there is always the downfall of the Queen of Scots and the murder of Christopher Marlowe to fall back on – historical events that we do know he was actually involved in.

Peter Tonkin is the author the Queen’s Intelligencer novels.

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