Death by Disputation: A Francis Bacon Mystery (Book 2), by Anna Castle, is a clever historical fiction whodunit.
Thomas Clarady is recruited to spy on a radical group of Puritans at Cambridge University in 1587. Francis Bacon is his spymaster. The mission doesn’t start off well. Tom’s chief informant is found hanging. The university assumes the man killed himself. Tom is convinced he was murdered. Now Tom must figure out who killed his informant and spy on the radical group, especially since he believes the two are linked. Can Tom figure out they mystery before it’s too late?
This is the second book in the series and I haven’t read book one. At first, I was worried that I’d feel adrift. For the most part, I think Anna Castle did an excellent job of giving enough background information without a massive info dump. At times I felt like I was missing some of the character development between Tom and his friends in the first installment, but those moments were fleeting and it didn’t diminish the entertainment factor of this novel.
Murder, intrigue, and religious zealotry are at the heart of Castle’s mystery making this a page turner. Tom at times seems like he is in way over his head and the stakes are high. One informant has already been killed. There’s real fear that if Tom is discovered, he’ll suffer the same fate. This tension keeps the reader glued to the pages.
To add to Tom’s woes he’s being pursued by three women. The relationships don’t detract from the plot. Quite the opposite in fact. They add doses of humor, but also add intriguing levels to the overall mystery. The motives of two of the women become blurry making one wonder if they know more than they should. If yes, what? And how far will they take their machinations to distract the clueless Tom.
Castle carefully plants clues for Tom and the reader. As Tom frantically chases them down, the reader is also attempting to piece them together. This is one of the best aspects of a cleverly written whodunit: the race to figure out the mystery before the main character. Sometimes it becomes painfully obvious to the reader before the sleuth in the story, ruining the fun and disengaging the reader well before the big reveal. Castle holds back on some key bits of information, which allows the “a-ha” moment to really hit home with greater impact.
The historical aspects in Death by Disputation are well done. The writing is modern making it much more accessible to today’s reader, but the facts, mood, characters, and descriptions are very much Elizabethan. The novel allows the reader to step back in time without feeling lost in unfamiliar language.
Readers who enjoy historical fiction and mysteries will appreciate Anna Castle’s easy-going writing style. She pulls the reader in immediately and keeps their interest until the final pages. If you ever wanted to play an armchair sleuth during the Elizabethan era, immerse yourself into Death by Disputation.