Novella review: Rizzio by Denise Mina

One more for Novella November!


Title: Rizzio
Author: Denise Mina
Publisher: Pegasus Crime
Publication date: September 7, 2021
Length: 128 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Library

Rating: 5 out of 5.

From the multi-award-winning master of crime, Denise Mina delivers a radical new take on one of the darkest episodes in Scottish history—the bloody assassination of David Rizzio  private secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, in the queen’s chambers in Holyrood Palace.

On the evening of March 9th, 1566, David Rizzio, the private secretary of Mary, Queen of Scots, was brutally murdered. Dragged from the chamber of the heavily pregnant Mary, Rizzio was stabbed fifty six times by a party of assassins. This breathtakingly tense novella dramatises the events that led up to that night, telling the infamous story as it has never been told before.

A dark tale of sex, secrets and lies, Rizzio looks at a shocking historical murder through a modern lens—and explores the lengths that men and women will go to in their search for love and power.

Rizzio is nothing less than a provocative and thrilling new literary masterpiece.

Who knew a crime story from 1566 could be so compelling?

In the skilled hands of Denise Mina, the story of the real-life murder of David Rizzio comes to life, full of political scheming, betrayals, and intricately choreographed action sequences.

From the very first paragraph, it’s clear that this will be a powerful, masterfully told story:

Lord Ruthven wanted him killed during this tennis match but Darnley said no. Lord Darnley wants it done tonight. He wants his wife to witness the murder because David Rizzio is her closest friend, her personal secretary, and she’s very pregnant and Darnley hopes that if she sees him being horribly brutalised she might miscarry and die in the process. She’s the Queen; they’ve been battling over Darnley’s demand for equal status since their wedding night and if she dies and the baby dies then Darnley’s own claim to the throne would be undeniable. They’re rivals for the crown. She knew that from the off. He wants it done in front of her.

How’s that for cold-hearted brutality? I love how this opening paragraph tells us so much about the situation, the motivations, and what’s at stake, with just just a few brief, stark sentences.

This tightly woven book traces the events immediately before and after Rizzio’s murder, exquisitely painting a picture of the precariousness of women’s power, the deadly nature of the battle between religious factions, and the inability of these scheming, devious men to recognize that women matter.

While the short length of this novella means that everything unfolds quickly, the writing is immersive and detailed enough to give us insight into the minds of the key players and to make the situation remarkably clear.

While I know the basics about Mary, Queen of Scots, I clearly don’t know enough, and reading this novella has piqued my interest all over again. One of my tasks in 2022 will be to find a good non-fiction book about her life and reign — I know there are plenty of novels and TV/movie depictions, but I also know that most, especially the on-screen versions, take a ton of liberties with the historical record.

I’d heard good things about Denise Mina previously, but this is my first time reading one of her books. Her writing and use of language is so on point and keen here, expressive but with nothing extraneous.

Rizzio is a quick, sharp tale of historical murder, and the terrific writing makes it sing. I came across this book after hearing two beloved authors, Susanna Kearsley and Diana Gabaldon, recommend it during an interview, and I’m so glad I followed their advice and gave it a try. Highly recommended, for crime fans as well as fans of historical fiction.

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