Book review: Of Blood Descended, by Steven Veerapen

Set in the court of King Henry VIII, Steven Veerapen’s enjoyable murder mystery is crying our for a sequel, writes Allan Massie

Steven Veerapen  PIC: Kirsty Anderson
Steven Veerapen PIC: Kirsty Anderson

Historians used to look down on historical novels. Now they write them and may even acknowledge a debt to stars of the genre such as Hilary Mantel. In this debut novel, Steven Veerapen even boldly ventures onto her territory. Though Thomas Cromwell does not appear, his first master, Cardinal Wolsey is centre stage, splendidly impressive in his palace of Hampton Court and admirably devious.

The young hero is an imaginary character, Anthony Blanke, of mixed race, son of a Moor who had served Henry VII as a trumpeter and who was indeed historical, not fictional. The action takes place over a few days in 1522 during a state visit from the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was also King of Spain and the nephew of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, whom he wasn’t yet ready to discard. It is hoped that the visit may lead to an alliance against France. It is necessary to impress the Emperor with England’s strength and magnificence, and the Cardinal has commissioned a splendid masque in which Anthony, recalled to Wolsey’s service, will dance. It will draw on the first English bestseller of the Age of Printing, Malory’s Morte d’Arthur.

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The Tudors were not the first English kings to take an interest in Arthur. Edward I had had a coffin in Glastonbury Abbey opened and identified its occupants as Arthur and his queen, Guinevere. Edward III had discovered Arthur’s famous Round Table, polished it up and displayed it in Winchester. But the Tudors were particularly obsessed with Arthur. They were parvenus, whose title to the hereditary throne was flimsy. But if they were heirs of Arthur, no one could doubt their true royalty. So Wolsey, we now learn, commissioned a historian to investigate and prove Henry’s Arthurian ancestry.

Of Blood Descended, by Steven Veerapen

Then the historian is found murdered, his papers stolen. Young Anthony is commanded to investigate the matter. The Cardinal’s choice of the young man might seem strange, but no stranger than the Foreign Office’s whisking Richard Hannay from his regiment and entrusting him with a mission to foil Germany’s nefarious plan to raise Islam against the British Empire. Be that as it may, Anthony, working against time, proves brave and resourceful. Other crimes follow. The danger to the Cardinal’s project and the proposed Grand Alliance becomes acute. He explores the murky depths of London’s underworld – splendidly described. He encounters danger, suffers injury from which, in the manner of heroes of adventure, he makes what would in other circumstances be a remarkably quick recovery. Recognizing him as a hero, you may be sure that he will come through, but not how; and there is many a twist before we reach a tourturously twisted end.

Veerapen has followed the example of masters of the adventure novel such as Stevenson, Buchan and Dick Francis, and entrusted the narrative to his hero. We see everything through his eyes, share his experience, unravel the mystery with him. A first person narrator is best for this kind of novel, but, though Anthony is hero as well as narrator, and though it is his picture of London that delights us, the star of the novel is the great Cardinal, machiavellian and magnificent, masterful, yet aware that he holds what he has at the King’s unreliable pleasure.

This is a splendidly enjoyable novel. I trust Anthony’s adventures will be continued. The brief part allotted here to Anne Boleyn suggests that they will be. In which case, how will Anthony fare with Cromwell? Cromwell, as Mantel’s millions of readers will know, remained as loyal to the Cardinal as was safe, and became Anne Boleyn's enemy. Anthony here is intrigued by Anne. How will he make his way through the Tudor maze, a time and place where no head is secure on the shoulders?

Of Blood Descended, by Steven Veerapen, Polygon, 372pp, £8.99