“Rizzio,” a brief novel of historical treachery by the adventurous Scottish author Denise Mina, is set mostly in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Palace in early 1566. In residence at Holyrood is the 23-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots, and her husband and king consort, Lord Darnley, with whose child she is six months pregnant. Parliament is in session, about to strip the Queen’s remaining rivals of their powers and lands. Those rivals—plus the “Chaseabout Lords” already exiled or slighted by Mary—have something else in mind: They plan to seize power after killing the Queen’s private secretary, David Rizzio, on the premise that he’s a papal spy.
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“They resent her power,” thinks Rizzio of the Queen’s enemies, “her sex, her religious devotion, her pregnancy which has the potential to carry on her Catholic line. They resent the compromise she represents, that there may not be a Protestant Europe, now and for ever.” The conspiracy’s most highly placed participant is the Queen’s own spouse, the envious and perfidious Darnley.
Given its basis in recorded fact, the plot of “Rizzio” is denied many of the opportunities for suspense afforded to stories made from whole cloth. (Who lives? Who dies? Who escapes?) But Ms. Mina creates other types of suspense: Who will be the next coup participant, for instance, to find out that he’s not in charge of the deeds he’s signed on to commit?
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The book focuses on the Saturday afternoon and evening of March 9, 1566, the date chosen by the insurrectionists for their attack. To this chronicle Ms. Mina brings a “Wolf Hall”-like depiction of interior thought. She describes her characters’ actions with optical clarity; centuries-old events are made immediate through the close scrutinizing of several individuals.
Here from his sickbed comes Darnley’s uncle by marriage, the feverish and bizarrely armored Lord Ruthven, his skin “a cadaverous green,” his breath smelling of “turned milk and cat piss.” One witness muses: “The conspirators have nominated a corpse to lead them.” He’s “an intolerable man,” but “he doesn’t care if they laugh. He has one foot out of this world already.”
Here too is Rizzio, the educated and charming Italian courtier who has made himself useful to the court in many ways and whose death is now vital to these conspirators’ plans. See him being dragged by the head from Mary’s presence like a “screaming trophy,” and then “stabbed in the neck, the arm, the stomach and legs.” Each present must participate, as in the murder of Caesar: “The collective nature of the act meant that everyone was tainted, that no one could be prosecuted because their fates are conjoined. If anyone were punished for the deed the entire class would fall.” Rizzio, who “has eight seconds left to live,” thinks of his assailants: “These men are grubby little cowards.”
Ruthven’s man Henry Yair, a Catholic turned Calvinist zealot, at first agrees, as he watches these “Great Men of History” at their butchery: “These men are not the elect. . . . These men are not marked for salvation.” But Yair soon returns to his reformist senses: “They are here to save the soul of Scotland. It is the right and godly thing to do.” He himself remains “a killing spree looking for an excuse.” Before the morn, his merciless suppression of his every joy will erupt in bloodletting madness.
Ms. Mina has been writing outstanding crime novels for years. She began her career at the turn of the century with a trilogy featuring a sex-abuse survivor who counsels similar victims and investigates attendant crimes. In “The Long Drop” (2017), the author constructed a fictionalized account of a real-life serial killer; like “Rizzio,” its plot was no less wrenching for being partly known in advance.
Top candidate for arch-snake in her latest novel’s nest of vipers may be the wicked and persistent Lennox, father of Darnley. “There is nothing worse than his father smiling,” Darnley thinks. “No good has ever come of it.” And Darnley knows: “Lennox wouldn’t hesitate to allow his own son’s execution if it were expedient.” Darnley is plenty vile in his own right; he expends his energy, while Rizzio is being slaughtered, hugging his wife hard in an effort to squeeze the life from their unborn child, “the usurper,” his rival for the eventual throne.
Her husband is an idiot, Mary judges. “He’s going to get them both killed.” In fact, she fears, “they’re going to kill her tonight . . . her and then Darnley. It’s the prudent thing to do. It’s what she would think to do. She needs to stop this.” Mary, then, becomes chief subject of our concern and sympathy, and she proves more than a match for her conniving mate. “She holds Darnley’s eye and mimics his wicked smile back at him. Darnley startles at her resolve . . . unhands her and steps away.”
With the help of a lady at court and the connivance of a midwife, Mary feigns illness, smuggles a note to supporters beyond the Holyrood grounds (“Bring an army”) and escapes on horseback, head high, spirit soaring. History-readers will know she cannot escape a future of exile, imprisonment and beheading. The closest thing “Rizzio” offers by way of revenge for its regal heroine, and for her Italian secretary, is the hanging of Yair, a gruesome event described in the same cinema-verité style as the rest of the story’s violence. The scene is more likely to induce PTSD than closure.
Ms. Mina, in her most recent books, has stretched her talent and pushed the genre envelope in stimulating ways. In “Rizzio” she has created a plus-sized novella with the passion of an opera, a tour de force of imaginative reconstruction. All that’s missing is a tagline from Scottish poet Robert Burns, writing some 200 years after the events at Holyrood Palace:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
—Mr. Nolan reviews crime fiction for the Journal.
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