The major criticism I’ve seen of this book online is that in its efforts to canonize Sir Francis Walsingham as the founder of English espionage, it gives too short shrift to Cecil, who apparently used (or invented?) many of the same techniques credited here to Walsingham. Which might be true, but for my purposes it’s irrelevant; the point is that Walsingham did use them, around the time period I’m going to be writing about, and therefore I can wreak whatever havoc with them I like.
But oh, is this book full of tasty espionage. (Espionage, and political backbiting; god, I never knew educated Renaissance gentlemen could be so damn catty.) Maybe Budiansky is novelizing his subjects a little too much, but there’s a good sense of personality in a lot of the incidents, some of it reassuringly backed up by genuine quotes from period documents. Until this book, I had no idea Walsingham had a sense of humour; one wouldn’t have expected it, given the Puritanism and the espionage, but it seems to have been true.
It’s very readable, though a touch novelistic in places, which makes me a little wary that Budiansky might be interpreting events to make them fit his story, but I don’t see any glaring evidence of that. I’d give it a thumbs-up as both a short bio of Walsingham and an example of Renaissance spy-work (which I want for other purposes besides Midnight Never Come) — he gives good, detailed accounts of the diplomatic and covert work that went on around the St. Bartholomew massacre, the Ridolfi plot, the Babington plot, and the Armada.
My complaint from this book is directed at Mr. Secretary Walsingham himself. He was so very adroit in the matter of the Babington plot, and moreover kept such very good records of it, that I’m left with far less wiggle room than I would like in which to have Other Stuff Going On. C’mon — couldn’t he oblige me by being less good at his job? It would make my job so much easier.
Oh. Right. Nobody ever promised this would be easy.