It is the early 1600s; James I is on the throne. At court, the king's favourite Robert Carr sees Frances Howard, ambitious wife of the Earl of Essex, and is smitten.
"Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust, Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust."
Those lines from Webster's The Duchess of Malfi are the epigraph to The Poison Bed by E.C. Fremantle, an intricately plotted, brilliantly realised novel, cleverly imagined but rooted in fact. It's the tale of a trial for murder, and with its dual narrators - Frances and Robert - its shifting focus makes for an intriguingly multi-angled look at a world of ruthless power play, strategic manoeuvring, and shameless manipulation.
Frances's early betrothal to Essex had been arranged in order to mend an old rift between the two families, but as ''the Essex crowd" lose their influence at court having favoured Prince Henry over the king, the Howards plan to extricate her from the marriage so that she can be of more use to them through a new alliance. The orphaned son of minor Scottish gentry, Robert Carr is on the rise; favoured by the monarch, he is accruing enemies to match his growing status, but his passion for Frances is real, and their match is likely to raise him to even greater things, except that deep-rooted jealousies and spurned loyalties find Robert out of his depth, and when a man dies, the Howards discover they are no longer the unassailable force they believed themselves to be.
There's an astute brain behind this chess game of a novel which sets a psychological thriller in conventional historical fiction territory. "There has long been speculation," says the author, "about what really happened when an insignificant man died at the tail end of summer, 1613, in a gloomy cell in the Tower of London [...] It was a scandal that rocked the Jacobean court and was one of the initial cracks that would eventually lead to the devastation of the Stuart monarchy [...] My novel has been a way to explore the depths of an intriguing event, blurred by time and made murky by corruption, through the prism of an era in which the truth has become equally elusive."
Through that prism we are shown guile and charisma, self-possession and the lack of it, the vigorous tendrils of politics, at once supporting and suffocating, and the human puppets always at the mercy of their masters. It's a compelling combination and makes for an excellent read.