Book review: Rizzio, by Denise Mina

This reimagining of the murder of David Rizzio, private secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, is utterly absorbing, writes Roger Cox

Denise Mina PIC: Lisa Ferguson Denise Mina - Scottish crime writer

It always pays to read the acknowledgements at the end of a book. More often than not they won't shed much light on what's gone before, but every now and then they offer up some fascinating nugget of insight into the creative process, and such is the case with the brief note at the end of Denise Mina's new novella, Rizzio.

"I'd like to thank Jamie Crawford [editor-at-large at Birlinn/Polygon] for commissioning this," she writes, "for sending the first draft back with a resounding 'meh' and forcing me to make it better."

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First of all, we should give credit to Crawford for having the guts to describe anything written by an author of Mina's stature as "meh” (although it's probably safe to assume that he didn't use that exact term), but we should also thank him, because if there was anything meh about the first draft of Rizzio, the finished version is a decidedly meh-free zone.

Rizzio, Denise Mina, £10 hardback, is published by Polygon on Thursday [2 September] and also in ebook.

After reading the acknowledgements I went back over the text, looking for something, anything, which could be described as meh – a weak character, a necessary but uninspiring passage of exposition – but there were none to be found. It may only run to 118 pages, but this is a piece of work in which everything feels honed, precise, tightly-sprung. Mina also adds that she found Crawford's feedback "intensely aggravating"; if that's the case, she evidently works very effectively in a state of intense aggravation.

Rizzio is the first in a new series from Polygon called Darkland Tales, in which the "absolute best of Scotland's contemporary writers" will "radically reimagine well-known stories drawn from history, myth and legend." The story of Mary, Queen of Scots has been re-told and reimagined so many times and in so many ways that it probably now qualifies as history, myth and legend but Mina manages to slice very deftly through all these confusing and often conflicting layers of meaning.

The most obvious way in which she does this is by giving herself only a short, relatively straightforward story to tell, with a clear narrative arc. Her decision to focus solely on the murder of Mary's private secretary David Rizzio at Holyrood Palace on 9 March 1566 and its immediate aftermath, thereby confining almost all of the action to a period of just three days, gives her tale the momentum and intensity of a good play (in fact, if someone doesn't try to adapt Rizzio for stage or screen at some point, this reviewer would be very surprised.) There are a few brief nods to the recent past and immediate future, but for the most part context is jettisoned in favour of action.

Less obvious but equally important is the way in which she finds a style which feels both contemporary and authentic. Her characters speak to each other much as we might speak to each other today - "Got David Rizzio's blood all over his brand-new velvet hose" says one conspirator, "Blood? That's never coming out," says another - yet, because the essence of what they are saying always feels true to the moment, this never seems anachronistic.

What really causes the story to leap from the page in three dimensions, though, is Mina's pin-sharp grasp of human psychology. Essentially a prisoner in her own palace, following the brutal mass-stabbing of Rizzio by Lord Ruthven's gang of Protestant nobles, Mary must persuade her husband, Lord Darnley, who was in on the plot at the start but now wonders if he is being edged out of it, that he is in as much danger as she is. At the same time, she must constantly try to second-guess the intentions of her unwelcome house guests, to look for chinks in their collective armour, and to get a sense of just how far they are prepared to go in order to get what they want.

As told by Mina, it's an electric and utterly absorbing battle of wills. Is it "the truth"? Of course, we can never know. It certainly feels like it.

Rizzio, by Denise Mina, Polygon, 118pp, £10

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