A Thriller Set in Jacobean England Delves Into a Notorious Murder

By Elizabeth Fremantle

King James I was, said his contemporaries, “the wisest fool in Christendom.” A scholar from his teens, he sponsored the authorized version of the Bible in English, but believed that one of his ships had been sunk by witchcraft. He was a peaceable monarch, but saw Parliament almost felled by the Gunpowder Plot. He was devout but openly homosexual, causing the courtier Sir Edward Peyton to observe that he would “tumble and kiss” his favorites “as a mistress.”

Elizabeth Fremantle’s engaging new novel, “The Poison Bed,” makes toothsome use of all this hurly-burly, drawing on the court’s most enduring scandal: the death of Sir Thomas Overbury and the resulting trial of Robert Carr and Frances Howard. Carr and Howard were something of a Jacobean celebrity couple: Carr, evidently blessed with more looks than intelligence, was one of the king’s kissed and tumbled favorites, and Frances a great beauty of indifferent reputation. When Carr’s amorous eye lighted on Frances, he encountered a number of impediments to their marriage: Her family was maneuvering for power and preferment, and his friend Overbury objected to a union with a scandalous woman whose first marriage had been annulled. When Overbury — removed to the Tower over some court intrigue — died, having been supplied with tarts and jellies from the now-remarried Howard, the couple fell under suspicion. Where, Fremantle asks, lies the guilt?

The novel begins with a striking scene in which Frances, evidently traumatized, is conveyed to the Tower by boat. One feels her “wet shock.” The reader will find this familiar territory, since she is that stalwart of the historical novel: a strong woman kicking against devious men, not least of them a villainous uncle. She may well be damned to a life of ribbons and corsets, but by God she will use the only weapons at her disposal, a pair of flashing eyes and a boyish yet feminine physique. This is all very well, and Frances is a likable figure, but for the most part she remains frustratingly opaque. The foppish Carr meanwhile appears faintly contemptible, unable or unwilling to think much beyond his sexual conquests. There is a large cast — too large, I occasionally felt, fretting over which noble was currently being unpleasant and why — in which familiar figures jostle against the imagined. One moment we are in the petulant presence of the king or awaiting the arrival “like a demon, on a blast of wind,” of Sir Francis Bacon, and the next growing fond of the good-natured fictional wet nurse sharing Frances Howard’s cell.

The novel’s depiction of the Jacobean age has the vivid, cleverly constructed and always faintly unreal quality of a stage set. Fremantle doesn’t elide the differences between the present and the past in favor of a kind of immediacy, but rather presents the period as a cabinet of curiosities. Not for a moment do we feel we are in anything other than a foreign land, where things are not merely different but antiquated to the point of absurdity. Within the first dozen pages we have had a dowry, a duel and a privy council. Throughout, the author’s eye for gleaming edges and the textures of flesh provides much to admire — objects and bodies in particular have a forceful and occasionally grotesque presence on the page. Perhaps the novel’s most memorable scene is the examination of Overbury’s corpse, which is conveyed with both pathos and an unflinching attention to its wounds.

Fremantle’s reveling in historical detail offers a good deal of pleasure to the reader, but it tends to compromise her decision to have her characters speak in a casual and decidedly 21st-century lexis. (“If I’m honest…” Carr muses.) The effect is rather like admiring a portrait of James I only to discern an iPhone tucked in his silken garter. But this sometimes uneasy conflation of modernity with bygone days is perhaps suited to a book that sits at the intersection of historical and detective fiction. It is in many respects more the latter than the former, with Fremantle deploying the split narrative form popularized by “Gone Girl”: The story moves between Frances in the Tower awaiting trial and Carr, reflecting on the life that took him from king’s pet to murder suspect. For the most part, this is an effective strategy, if inconsistent with regard to the nuts and bolts of tense and perspective.

One expects the reversal, of course, but it comes in a double blow, the first of which is so cunningly done I found myself pausing, frowning and riffling back through 200 pages to confirm that I had, indeed, been thoroughly stitched up. The conclusion is handled with skill and delicacy, and in a fashion that recalls the line from Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi” that provides the novel’s epigraph: “Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust.”

Sarah Perry’s most recent novel is “Melmoth.”

THE POISON BED By Elizabeth Fremantle 405 pp. Pegasus Crime. $25.95.

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