A Question of Guilt

Julianne Lee
2008, Historical Fiction (1500s England and Scotland)
Berkley, $14.00, 320 pages, Amazon ASIN 0425223515

Grade: C
Sensuality: Warm

Do you really adore Miss Marple? Does the idea of a 16th century Miss Marple poking about in people's households light up your imagination? If so, then you may find yourself enjoying A Question of Guilt far more than I did. This book definitely has its strong points - the author, who has written several books in her own name and also as part of the group working under the Laurien Gardner pseudonym, has clearly done her research and captures not only the drama of the time period, but also the danger, fear, and grim realities of 16th Century life. Unfortunately, these insights are buried inside a most improbable frame.

The story opens in 1587, three days after the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. Janet de Ros, a Scotswoman married to a successful London merchant has heard various stories about Mary. She does not feel convinced that the execution for plotting against Elizabeth was justified nor does she solidly believe Mary guilty of killing her second husband, Darnley. While most people might just spend some sleepless nights fretting over the state of affairs, Janet feels called to a different course. She decides to travel to Fotheringay to investigate matters for herself.

When I hit this point, I had to read it twice because I just could not believe that I was reading something so absurd. It's true, though. Janet proceeds to make her way to various locations around Scotland and England, gently interrogating servants, lesser members of Mary's household, and more. Their stories help her put together a fuller picture of Mary so that she can decide for herself what most likely happened.

As those who stood close to Mary Stuart recount key episodes of her life, an intriguing and rather unique portrait of her develops. These stories are told as flashbacks and are easily the strongest part of the book. Many readers will be familiar with the outlines of Mary Stuart's story, but the subtle details contained in the various flashbacks make her come to life in bits and snatches. Many of the incidents described jump richly to life and some are quite emotional, even disturbingly so. Life in the 16th century could be brutal and Lee does not skirt this reality.

Though the frame in which the portrait gets painted lacked a certain something for me, the author's vision of Mary intrigued me. Many accounts focus on the tension between Mary and Elizabeth, but this story stretches back further than that. Readers see Mary, a Catholic queen come to a country suspicious of her, getting caught in the machinations of various nobles with independent power who do not always wish her well. The harsh reality of Mary's life and rule in Scotland as depicted here came alive for me in a way that most nonfiction accounts of her cannot quite manage.

While the strengths of this novel are undeniable, the quality of the book is sadly rendered uneven by the major flaw of the frame in which the story is told. Still, even though Janet de Ros's quest to act as a 16th century detective and somehow uncover the truth seems more than a little odd and jarringly anachronistic to me, I could have handled this aspect of the story better had I been able to like Janet or at least find her quest interesting. However, her motivations never feel entirely clear. The crucial question of "Just what exactly does this woman hope to accomplish?" never gets answered in a satisfactory manner, and the ultimate resolution of the story suffers for it.

Readers who think they can look past the frame in which this tale is told may like this book better than did I. The flashbacks of Mary Stuart's life are well written and if the quality of the book was not so uneven, I could almost recommend it. However, Janet de Ros's story acts as distraction more than aid to the novel and so I cannot see A Question of Guilt as a whole to be more than ordinary. Julianne Lee has great strength as a writer, though, and I would direct curious readers to see those qualities displayed to better effect in The Spanish Bride (written as Laurien Gardner) instead.

-- Lynn Spencer

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