Saturday, March 5, 2022

Rizzio - Denise Mina

There are a lot of things I'm loving about the Polygon Darklands series not the least of which is that it's already introduced me to two writers I wouldn't otherwise have paid any attention to. I had heard of Jenni Fagan who's Hex is spectacular enough to make me think I might pick up 'Luckenbooth', but I hadn't heard of Denise Mina at all, and wouldn't have paid much attention to her books if I saw them as contemporary crime really isn't my normal choice of reading. 

I'm intrigued now though as I really loved this book. David Rizzio was murdered in front of a heavily pregnant Mary on the 9th of March 1566 as the starting point of a failed coup. Her husband, Lord Darnley was in on the plot - there's speculation that he tried to ensure Mary miscarried the future King James and hoped that she might die in the process so that he could claim the Scottish crown for himself. 

Anybody who has visited Holyrood in Edinburgh, or has an interest in Mary, will be familiar with the story, which I think increases in its power to shock over time. Rizzio was Mary's secretary and confidant, they were eating supper with a group of other nobles when armed men burst in on them and slaughtered him, despite her efforts to protect him. Half the nobles of Scotland were involved in the plot, and whilst on one level it failed - Mary got away, and her child survived, it's also the beginning of the end for her. 

Most of the action takes place on the day and night of the assassination, and it's utterly compelling. This is only a novella, little more than 100 pages long but it feels monumental. Mina is a genius at mixing established historical facts and detail with supposition and commentary. The characters come to life in her hands; drunk, scared, determined, ruthless, ambitious, cowardly, dishonest, weak, desperate, calculating, brave, and surprising - everything is here. 

Everything about this book worked for me. I'm not going to compare it directly to Hex, they're different beasts altogether - Hex had the greater emotional punch for me but Rizzio is the book I'll be recommending to anyone who stands still long enough for the way it relates history, for how compelling it is, and for just being an all-round masterclass in story telling. 


  1. We just watched a film about Mary Queen of Scots (2019) which showed the murder is rather distressing detail. I've always been fascinated with Mary's story - this sounds like an interesting take on it.

    1. It's excellent. Vivid, and it doesn't spare the reader from the truth of a brutal attack, but it doesn't dwell on it either. One reason I don't read much contemporary crime is that I don't want the graphic detail we seem to get so much of now. This was just right for me.