Review: Rizzio

Denise Mina – Rizzio

Published by Polygon Books, paperback £7.99, also available in ebook and audio book. I received a copy of the hardback edition from the publisher for review purposes. You can buy the book/ebook direct from the publisher at:

First, the official blurb: It’s Saturday evening, 9 March 1566, and Mary, Queen of Scots, is six months pregnant. She’s hosting a supper party, secure in her private chambers. She doesn’t know that her palace is surrounded – that, right now, an army of men is creeping upstairs to her chamber. They’re coming to murder David Rizzio, her friend and secretary, the handsome Italian man who is smiling across the table at her. Mary’s husband, Lord Darnley, wants it done in front of her and he wants her to watch it done…

Rizzio, a slim, elegant book with an arrestingly bright cover, is the first in the Darkland Tales series, a collaboration between Polygon and James Crawford. Now chairman of the Bloody Scotland board, he is also the man who as publishing manager of Historic Environment Scotland commissioned the Bloody Scotland short story collection in 2017, which saw dark deeds done in every corner of the country. Denise Mina’s contribution, ‘Nemo Me Impune Lacessit’, set in Edinburgh Castle, won her the CWA short story dagger for 2018. 

Scottish history has plenty of dark corners to explore, and its myths and legends include plenty of shady characters too. Fiction writers have been exploring them since the novel form began and they still fascinate writers today. But Mina was the ideal person to kick off this Darkland Tales series: her fascination with the true crime genre and how we react to it is well known, and explored in the award-winning The Long Drop, as well as several recent novels.

Open the covers and note that epigraph – a promise of what lies before us or a warning? It’s very Denise Mina, either way. And then turn the page and we get a smack-in-the-mouth chapter heading that doesn’t so much draw us into the tale as grab us by the throat. I love chapters with a title; here each is a line from the chapter itself, all adding to the atmosphere.

Most of Rizzio takes place on 9 March, 1566, in the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. But there’s no thees and thous, the language is arrestingly modern from the get-go – it adds to the pace and intensity of the tale in a way a more historically accurate vocabulary would not, and by the end of the first page we are completely immersed in the language and the plot alike.

No historical knowledge is needed – if you have it, I imagine you will get a richer experience, but if it’s like mine, ie minimal and fuzzy, you will find yourself educated, for the combination of language, humour and the sharp style are the perfect vehicle to drive the details into your head. If my history lectures had been like this, I might have got higher marks…

It’s hardly a spoiler after several centuries to say that David Rizzio, Mary’s secretary and friend, was brutally murdered, with Mary’s husband Lord Darnley being the instigator – and the one who demands it is done in front of the queen, in the hopes of making her miscarry her child and possibly die in the process, thus leaving the way clear for him to take the throne. Power corrupts, oh yes indeed.

But even knowing what is coming, the violence when it arrives – in some detail – is nasty and shocking and the political implications made clear. And it’s perhaps all the nastier for it being true, even though it’s centuries ago.

There’s murder, political intrigue and scheming, plotting and double-crossing, plus a good dose of misogyny: it’s 1566 but it could be yesterday. What also makes it relevant to today is the treatment of Mary as a woman – watched, searched, suspected, dismissed; all the more shocking because she is a queen and as such could surely expect better (or at least politer) treatment. But she also finds sisterhood in unexpected places, which softens the blow of male disloyalty and disrespect; at one moment I find myself cheering at a deception. 

As we know, Mary escapes, and her son is born. But that’s not the end of her story, and a clever epilogue brings us from then to now, evidence and truth fading as the years pass and she becomes more legend than reality.

Rizzio is a fiery account of an ancient tale, a snapshot of the 16th century brought vividly to a 21st century audience. It can’t fail to grab the attention and perhaps ignite a desire to learn more about the Scots queen so loved and so feared that she is now more myth than historical figure.

After a peripatetic childhood in Glasgow, Paris, London, Invergordon, Bergen and Perth, Denise Mina left school early. She worked in a number of dead end jobs, all of them badly, before studying at night school to get into Glasgow University Law School. She went on to study for a PhD at Strathclyde University, misusing her student grant to write her first novel. This was Garnethill, published in 1998, which won the Crime Writers Association John Creasy Dagger for Best First Crime Novel. She has now published more than a dozen novels and also writes short stories, plays and graphic novels. She has won the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year Award twice, the McIlvanney Prize, the Gordon Burn Prize and the CWA short story dagger, and in 2014 was inducted into the Crime Writers’ Association Hall of Fame. Denise also presents TV and radio programmes as well as regularly appearing at literary festivals in the UK and abroad.

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