Denise Mina

Polygon, £10

Review by Rosemary Goring

At first glance, you might be forgiven for assuming that Denise Mina had jumped ship from the crime genre to join the ranks of bodice-rippers. Her recent novel, The Long Drop, about the 1950s serial killer Peter Manuel might, at a stretch, be called historical, but not in the way most of us understand it. With Rizzio, her retelling of the murder of Mary Queen of Scots’s Italian secretary, she has entered the territory of Hilary Mantel, Alison Weir, and innumerable others in the past, from Robert Louis Stevenson to Alison Uttley, who have turned the Tudors and Stuarts into literary gold.

Mina’s Rizzio, however, is not fiction. The first in a projected series from Polygon, in which well-known novelists examine the dramatic high points of the past “through a modern lens”, it will be followed by Jenni Fagan’s Hex, about one of the North Berwick witches hunted down by James VI, and Alan Warner’s The Man Who Would Not Be King, recounting Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s failed adventures.

Puffed as “a radical new take” on probably the most sensational murder in Scotland’s past, Rizzio would seem to be a project tailor-made for Mina, with a plot rich in violence, vengeance, skulduggery and fear. In her hands, however, it takes on a new dimension, that of comedy or farce.

The outline of the story is familiar to most: On the night of March 9, 1566, Mary’s supper party at Holyrood Palace was interrupted by the arrival of her loathsome husband Darnley. He was followed by the aged and ailing Lord Ruthven, who appeared in the doorway dressed in a suit of armour, complete with steel helmet: “Ruthven’s outfit resembles confusion screamed in high C by a panicked goat.” He demanded that Rizzio be handed over to him and as the heavily pregnant queen refused, more of Darnley’s followers surged into the room. The terrified secretary was dragged out at knife point and butchered like a sacrificial lamb, which is precisely what he was.

Rizzio begins a few hours earlier on the indoor tennis court at Holyrood Palace, where Darnley and the Italian are thwacking a ball around the court. The game is watched by Henry Yair, a fanatical Protestant who was formerly a priest.

Yair knows what is intended that night for Rizzio, and approves. So, obviously, does Darnley. He and Rizzio had been lovers, and that he can coolly play tennis with a man whose murder he has plotted, is a measure of his venality.

It is a promising opening, hinting at the tension with which Holyrood crackled, and showing the pitiless nature of the most fervent reformers, not to mention the ambition of a would-be king. Yair, writes Mina, was “a killing spree looking for an excuse”. Later that evening he would murder the palace priest, Father Adam Black. Yet in some ways this dreadful night was not as bad as it might have been. Far more killings had been planned, but most importantly, the queen and her unborn child survived.

Moment by moment, as the supper room is invaded, Mina unreels events. There is much detail of who is standing where, and holding what. An intrusion that lasted a matter of moments is stretched, as if in slow motion, but all sense of momentum is lost. Yair’s deranged impressions end with him, insane, in a prison cell, covered in blood.

Far more gory is the scene of Rizzio’s stabbing, by all who were party to the deed: “It takes quite a long time for everyone to have a go,” writes Mina, portraying some of the murderers as giggling. And although Darnley does not take part, his dagger is left in the corpse, so there is no doubt of his involvement. Ruefully, one of the lords later reflects: “They went a bit mad that night.”

Occasionally the Top Gear tone is abandoned in favour of carefully setting the stage. Ahead of the Parliament sitting that would have confiscated the property of many of the ringleaders of the plot, the city was awash with incomers: “At night, kitchen floors and draughty corridors are carpeted with sleeping servants and animals.” When the queen’s chamber fills with torchlight as the city guard arrive to see what the ruckus is about, it is “suddenly midday at the height of summer”.

Elsewhere she loses her footing. Perhaps because the crime fiction genre is about entertainment, Mina tries to pour Rizzio’s story into that mould. The jokiness feels tasteless and juvenile rather than insightful or subversive. Intended to mock the main culprits, whom she derides as The Great Men of History – “They’re all white, between the ages of 20 and 60, and, literally, entitled” – it fails in any way to do justice to the gravity of the events and their players, or cast them in a fresh light. “No, you go first” is the title of the chapter where Darnley enters the queen’s supper room, as Ruthven insists he leads the way.

Mary might supposedly be the central character, but it is her husband who gets more column inches: “There’s something wrong with Darnley, something missing. He has none of the finer feelings a human being has. He is a different kind of thing.” This, the “monster” theory of history, illuminates nothing.

As a thumbnail sketch of what happened, Rizzio might have had real value in bringing an enquiring imagination to the bare factual bones. Instead, Mina hams it up, and in the process gets details wrong. It was not any old guard who threatened to cut the queen into pieces if she screamed for help – “She’s remembering his face and he sees that” – but Lord Patrick Lindsay, whom she knew very well. Later, when her courtiers knelt before Mary, on the spot where Rizzio had died, it was Morton, not the urbane Moray, whose hose were soaked in blood. A heartless brute, he does not flinch. (This chapter is entitled “The Price of Tights”.)

There are other slips, but the worst is saved for last. Towards the story’s end we are told that Darnley didn’t have much time left in which to be a father to the baby James, because he “will be murdered in two years”. It was, in fact, less than two months until his death. This, then, is no radical retelling; it is often simply wrong.