'The Traitor's Mark' weaves a Tudor mystery from scraps of fact

The historical record tells us that famous Tudor portrait painter Hans Holbein died in the autumn of 1543, possibly of the plague. But did he really?

The Traitor's Mark By D. K. Wilson Little, Brown 400 pp.

Through a small crack in the records, historian D. K. Wilson slips in to spin the richly-atmospheric plot of his latest novel, The Traitor's Mark. The historical record tells us that the famous Tudor portrait painter Hans Holbein died in the autumn of 1543, possibly of the plague or some other fast-acting infection. At least, that's according to a much later source which, as Wilson rightly warns, “certainly cannot be accepted without question.” 

Plague was on the march in the England of 1543, as was religious tension arising from the spreading and deepening of the English Reformation. One sliver of this tension grew into the so-called Prebendaries' Plot of 1543, in which a group of churchmen sought to drum up heresy charges against Henry VIII's much-favored Archbishop of Canterbury, the outspoken reformer Thomas Cranmer. It's Wilson's minor stroke of genius to combine all these things and create a mystery where before there was only an ellipsis.

When "The Traitor's Mark" opens, Hans Holbein is still, as far as anybody knows, alive and well. This is good news for our hero, goldsmith Thomas Treviot, who is waiting on some designs the artist is making for a commission Treviot has in hand from the Lord Mayor of London. When word reaches Treviot that Holbein is missing and his studio ransacked, Treviot has a vested interest in finding the missing artist.

Thanks to Wilson's skillful plotting and pacing, both Treviot and readers are quickly drawn into a far murkier situation than a simple missing persons case. Holbein's abilities as an artist – not only to paint, but to be unobtrusive in plain sight in the houses of the great and powerful – had brought him to the attention of Henry's Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell. And now, three years after Cromwell's execution, Cranmer tells Treviot that the painter had been gathering incriminating information about the plots of Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, and had been obliged to go into hiding. If he's to be found now, as Cranmer tells Treviot, “there are things that need doing and only you can do them.”

It strains believability just a bit, since Treviot comes off as something much closer to Watson than Holmes. According to Cranmer, Cromwell's own dossier on Treviot described him as “tenacious, intelligent but not quick-witted, transparently honest, and, above all, fiercely loyal.” In other words, our intrepid sleuth is a Labrador Retriever in a codpiece. He seems an unlikely candidate to join Holbein in “this dangerous political tourney in which any fall was fatal.”

Even so, he and his small group of friends and servants begin diligently tracking clues to the painter's disappearance, and the same name keeps cropping up: Henry Walden, known in the London underground as “Black Harry.” Long before we meet him, he's described as a “savage hellhound,” “the very essence of evil,” and “a man who took positive delight in causing suffering and pain; the sort of unnatural creature who would look on with fiendish delight while his men hacked defenceless children to pieces.” More than one naughty reader might secretly wish the savage hellhound was in the crime-solving business.

Wilson does a very effective job of showing that the treachery of Black Harry and his paymasters is a sign of the times rather than an exception – indeed, doublespeak and duplicity run straight to Windsor Palace, as one character tells Treviot, “When his majesty needs to be on good terms with the Emperor, he is almost as Catholic as the pope. When he needs the support of the Lutheran princes, he is a vigorous reformer.” A pure-hearted goldsmith could easily find himself on the wrong side of power.

It's all handled with consummate ease and only a few annoying tics on Wilson's part. His characters lapse with drastic regularity into a kind of King Richard's Faire lingo that has them  forever saying things like “You cackbrained clotpole!” “Close your maw!” “Don't you soft-talk me!” “Shut your snout, hedge pig!” – and our author uses “'tis” so often you'll want t'strangle him. His characters have the common failing of verbosity; when one of them pronounces, “When someone who believes anything is justifiable in the service of his cause sanctions the activities of someone prepared to do anything as long as the price is right, the result is inhuman acts of unrestrained horror,” you feel certain Hilary Mantel's Cromwell could have said the same thing in one crystal-sharp line.

Given the extent of Wilson's erudition on the period, such things feel a bit like pandering, but he counterbalances them by wonderfully evoking the street-level reality of  Tudor-era England in its weathers and sights and smells and even in its unexpected beauties. And because nobody really knows how exactly Hans Holbein met his end, the plot is charged with genuine suspense as it boils along. And if Wilson cribs his Epilogue from Shakespeare, well, Shakespeare cribbed it from Holinshed first.

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