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Romp through the ages

the king'shenchman: Henry

Gibson Square, €24 ***

This is the biography of the little-known, but historically influential Henry Jermyn. When I first picked it up, I thought it was historical fiction.

Historical fiction is great, because it presents facts in the context of a thrilling tale, usually action-packed, sometimes a little bit smutty, full of battles and plagues and pageantry. Dramatic stuff that makes you forget you might be learning something.

This isn't really historical fiction, despite attempts by the author to tell a whopping good yarn.

Henry Jermyn was the alleged father of Charles II, via his lover, the Queen Henrietta Maria. He is not to be confused with the Irish shirt makers in Clare Street.


This Henry was a commoner who shot up the ranks, no doubt because he was up the queen's skirts, but also because he bothered to do things that no one else was arsed to do, like learn to speak French, for instance. He lived through it all -- the plague, the Great Fire, Cromwell -- and yet he doesn't really leap off the page.

After 20 years studying this mysterious character -- he did his best work behind the scenes, after all -- Adolph knows the man inside out. Unfortunately, he seems to be trying to satisfy two masters: the one that wants to be creative, and the one who demands that all the facts, names and dates be trotted out in all their historically correct splendour. The tension between narrative fancy and actual fact makes for an uncertain tone. It's a shame, because one can almost feel Adolph straining to fling the story into the kind of creative treatment we now expect for historical topics.

As the song says, don't know much about history, but what I do know, I learned because it was all wrapped up in narrative. Some of these titles below may require you to order them from your neighbourhood bookseller, which is a delightfully appropriate, old-fashioned thing to do.

In a dark wood wandering:

a novel of the middle ages

by Hella S Haasse

Academy Chicago Publishers, various prices online


God love, me, I remember trying to use this book as a conversation starter at a party. Yeah, really sexy! Anyway, I loved this book, and have never forgotten reading it and was delighted to revisit it. Charles de Orleans, medieval poet and statesman, nephew of Charles IV, is the centre point around which Haasse weaves a compelling tale of intrigue, political striving, and the Hundred Years war.

The 15th century has never been a more compelling read. Surprised I didn't pull at that party? Didn't think so.


by Edward Rutherfurd

Arrow (2005), €12.95


Here, he uses the same format he's honed, if not to perfection, than at least to effortlessness: the fates of several families, of varying classes, all intertwine to tell the story of a place.

The personalisation of the life in a certain time period is certainly Rutherfurd's greatest skill.

Despite having divided the story of the development of the Big Smoke into two volumes, this tale is almost too epic, however, to be told in his usual fashion.


by Tucker Malarkey

Riverhead Books (2001),



Upon the death of her father, Gemma Bastion stumbles upon one of the greatest discoveries of our time: the Gnostic gospels of Nag Hammadi. Malarkey writes beautifully of the Egypt of the 1940s, and her lyricism is on a par with Paul Bowles.

The attendant love story is not as well realised, and detracts from a truly thrilling conspiracy of the Church to suppress the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.

Leaves The DaVinci Code in its dust.

The Alienist

by Caleb Carr

Random House (1994), €16


It is spring in 1896 in New York City. Theodore Roosevelt is the police commissioner, JP Morgan is at the height of his powers and there is a serial killer on the loose.

Carr brings us from ballroom to backroom with style and ease, and introduces us to criminal profiling via the character of Dr Laszlo Kreizler.

I read this in one go, into the wee hours: this is absolutely one of those books.

The Lady of

the Rivers

by Philippa Gregory

Simon & Schuster

Ltd (2011), €11.45


What is not to like about this one? It's got queens, it's got quality-marrying-the-help, it's got Joan of Arc! The story of Jacquetta, who became the Duchess of Bedford and then a widow, and the BFF of Queen Margaret of Anjou, starts out well, and has witchcraft -- forgot about the witchcraft! -- and then peters out as, it would seem, information about the latter years of her life becomes spotty.

It's annoying, and like Adolph's offering, makes you wonder why the tale wasn't framed for maximum impact.