Reviews: Death by Disputation

Death by Disputation by Anna Castle“Bartholomew Leeds interrupts the young men’s studies at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University in 1587 when he is found hanging from a roof beam. Is it suicide or murder? He sent warnings to His Lordship about the rising Puritan rebel underground. Were his communications intercepted somehow? Thomas Clarady, a spy in their midst assigned to investigate the Puritans, must now ponder and debate this Death by Disputation by author Anna Castle. Fascinating suspects abound at the college, and beyond its borders.

“Philosopher, statesman, orator, and spymaster Francis Bacon is anxious to determine and jail the instigator, the suspected head of the Puritan rebels, as well as track any connection to “Barty” Leeds untimely demise. He’s impatient for resolution and demands daily, written updates from Tom Clarady, his recruited spy. Posing as a student, Tom methodically follows clues while chased by three enamored women, dogged by well-meaning friends, diligently turning in his homework, and risking his own life more than once. Tom is enthusiastically determined to catch a killer, and to solve the mystery, as he plunges into this grand adventure. But this mystery has ominous layers, uncovering one leads to a more dangerous set of clues.

“As Tom follows leads, he finds that the victim had interesting curricular and extra-curricular activities, any of which could make him a target. Tom takes his undercover duties to heart as he masks himself as a student who is swayed by Puritan ways and infiltrates the local group. He decides “in order to stop them he has to become one of them.”  But will they discover his de facto assignment? He becomes such an ardent follower that the apparent changes in his personality and lifestyle concern his friends and even his spymaster. Tom treads carefully, but has he gotten in over his head? As he examines clues and analyzes suspects, the reader participates in working out theories and ultimately guessing a villain.

“The delightful dimension to this mystery is the fascinating characters the author showcases. Along with the smart spy who sleuths along a tightrope between warring factions, the highlight is the fictionalized historical figure of Christopher Marlowe, a treasured rogue. Marlowe’s loyalties are continuously in question, but his wry humor and dramatic actions hit their marks. The three romantic women also particularly surprise with their hidden skills, knowledge and vibrant personalities. References to the historical period setting naturally weave into the plot and dialog, and enhance rather than detract from the pacing of this thrilling spy tale.

“For author Anna Castle, writing fiction combines her lifelong love of stories and learning. She chose the Elizabethan period for her Francis Bacon series, seeing it as one of the most colorful periods of all times and places. Retired from one of the world’s great research libraries, the University of Texas at Austin, the author enjoys the extensive research she does for the series and the details of the historical period that she shares with her readers.

“There’s no debate – Anna Castle brings to life a page-turning, thrill of a mystery where “there are hazards other than jail or bodily harm” in Death by Disputation.”

– Chanticleer Reviews, W. Kendall, May 14, 2018
4 Roosters


“Francis Bacon is spymaster to his uncle William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth I’s chief advisor, in this novel. He recruits young Thomas Clarady to go undercover at Cambridge University in 1587 to learn more about the increasingly rebellious religious zealots, later known as Puritans. This is the second in a mystery series involving Francis Bacon, Thomas Clarady and their friends. Spicing the mix in this volume are the writers Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nash. While the religious controversies of the period are what send Clarady to Cambridge, matters take a deadly turn when he discovers his tutor’s body, apparently a suicide by hanging. This being a mystery, we soon learn it was no suicide.

“Early on, I wondered if spying or detective work was the best profession for young Thomas since it took him some time to reach the conclusion that the suicide was, in fact, murder. But he grew into his role, aided by the clever Marlowe and with some guidance coming by letter from Bacon.

“This nicely plotted mystery does not give away the murderer’s identity until the very end – always a plus in my estimation. In the meantime, there are plenty of complications to the story to hold a reader’s interest – multiple romantic involvements for Tom, other nefarious crimes being discovered, and comic misunderstandings between Tom and Bacon and the rest of his crew.

“I enjoyed learning a little about the controversial non-conformist Puritans in this delightful mystery. The author, who has three books in the series, recommends reading the books in order since the characters’ relationships build with each novel. However, I had no trouble picking up what was happening among them, in this second of the three. I would recommend Death by Disputation to any fan of historical mysteries, or to anyone interested in what went on in Elizabethan England outside the royal court.”

– Eileen Stephenson, Historical Novel Society, April 2015


“With the second book in a series you have two different kind of readers. There are the ones who know the first book and there are the ones who do not know the first book. In case you missed Murder by Misrule  let met tell you that it is possible to read and enjoy Death by Disputation without knowing the first book. But you will definitely miss the character development and other impacts. With Death by Disputation Thomas “Tom” Clarady, the young man who does the legwork for Francis Bacon change from Gray’s Inn to Cambridge University in order to work undercover. But the story takes an unforeseen turn with the death of the chief informant. Suddenly Tom’s official tasks are doubled. Not to forget all the impacts of social interaction including ladies who want to bed Tom – you will learn something about the use of onion juice and tar – young women he admires and more. His only connection to the “normal” world are the letters he exchange with Francis Bacon on a daily base. He is clearly missing his companions Allen Trumpington,  Ben Whitt and Stephen Delabere.

“It is most impressive to read how the world of religious zealots takes it toll. Does Tom Clarady remain the a good-hearted mischief-maker as we got to know him from his adventures described in Murder by Misrule? All persons, places, sounds, smells clearly show the effort of a well done research. This is an extraordinary depiction of the Elizabethan England. One of the many highlights is the appearance of  Christopher Marlowe who plays a not unimportant role. The whole story is carried by an unerring use of the English language which sounds to me very Elizabethan. Do you know  a “tickle-brained pignut” is? The plot keeps the pages turning. I promise you will keep guessing until near the end. Even at times where the action is not fast paced you will be highly entertained with ongoing misunderstandings, misadventures, absorbing and accurate historical details and witty humor. Sometimes laugh and cry follow each other. And even I, who is definitely not a fan of romance appreciated the romantic dash which complements this gorgeous piece of historical mystery. Finally there is something which is not directly part of the story but part of the book. Do not underestimate the Historical Notes which are on the one hand enlightening and helpful and on the other hand are like a bait to discover Elizabethan England.”

– Edi’s Book Lighthouse, Jan 04, 2015


“This highly entertaining opus is a gorgeous piece of historical mystery. Accurate historical details, page turning plot, bodacious, lovable and believable characters, gorgeous depictions and bewitching use of language will transfer you through time and space back to Elizabethan England and does not bring you back before you read  ……. “I am ready to serve, my lord, as always.”

– The Inevitable


“The first requirement that should be noted for a complete enjoyment of Death by Disputation isn’t a similiarity with Book One of the Francis Bacon series (though that certainly will evolve for new readers who enjoy this book) and it isn’t even an affinity for the historical mystery genre (although that certainly does help).

“It’s a willingness to become immersed in a period saga that includes not just attention to historical setting, but details that add historical notes and capture the dialogue and language of the era – something that may frustrate those without such an affinity, but which will delight historical mystery enthusiasts looking for genuine research and attention to well-done, realistic settings which goes a cut above your usual historical mystery genre production.

“One of the elements that makes Death by Disputation a ‘cut above’ lies in its tongue-in-cheek humor and its observational style. A good writer will describe Cambridge, for example. A superior writer will simply immerse the reader in the essence that is Cambridge: “Spring was awakening in Cambridge, and for a mercy, it wasn’t raining. The sky beyond Leeds’s slender figure was a perfect blue. A blackbird on a nearby ledge vigorously declared his melodious philosophy to the breeze. How could anyone destroy himself on such a beautiful March morning?”

“The Elizabethan phrases sprinkled throughout demonstrate an attention to detail that is simply exquisite (“…for a mercy…”): it’s as though Anna Castle has conducted her research via time machine, personally visiting the era and capturing its sights, smells, and nuances.

“But this isn’t about historical fiction: it’s about a mystery. Here, too, Castle’s style shines, delicately eliciting a series of emotional responses from her readers as she weaves a complex web of scenarios and firmly centers them in Elizabethan culture and times. Again: it’s as though she lived there – and that’s the hallmark of good, solid research rather than off-the-cuff mystery writing: “…the fact the letter had been opened showed that someone was suspicious of him. Why? Because he was relatively new? Because he’d been asking questions about Leeds? He’d been lucky this time. Still, Tom cursed himself for a white-livered, crack-brained, double-dyed fool. He’d have to be more careful henceforward.”

“As events progress and Tom uncovers more and more clues to a mystery, his involvement with his mentor Francis Bacon reflects a host of petty criminal activities with major implications for 16th century Cambridge culture. From social interactions and romance to succinct, staccato portraits of simple perception (“He rose and stretched and looked around for his hat. He found it in a corner and dusted off bits of hay, taking his time about it, reluctant to leave the warmth of friendship to go back out into the cold of deceit.”), Death by Disputation is not so much a pick for those who want a quick, action-packed saga as it is a delight for historical mystery fans who want as much attention to historical detail as to mystery.

“It’s here that Anna Castle’s strength simply shines – more so, even, than in the first book of her series.”

– D. Donovan, eBook Reviews, Midwest Book Reviews


“That brief synopsis hardly does justice to a story that is so immersed in time and place that the reader can forget the 21st century for a little while. It is apparent that the author has done her research, down to the last detail of dress, furnishings, speech patterns and more, and the book transports the reader to Elizabethan times.

“One of the things I found particularly interesting was the romantic sub-plot from the POV of a male character. The way Tom got himself tangled, then untangled, with two women to set his heart on a third was quite fun, and I’m sure the way the relationships were handled was very indicative of that time in history.

“While much of the story is character-driven the plot line always connected back to the mystery at all the right places. I will admit that I figured out who the killer might be early on, but then the author would throw suspicion on someone else, and that would give me pause, which is part of the fun of reading a mystery.

“I highly recommend this story that is filled with great historical events and the most fascinating characters, especially Tom and Trumpet. Be ready for a surprise.”

– Maryann Miller, It’s Not All Gravy

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