Stephanie Jane Merritt (born 1974 in Surrey) is an English critic and feature writer who has contributed to various publications including The Times, The Daily Telegraph, the New Statesman, New Humanist and Die Welt. She was Deputy Literary Editor of The Observer from 1998 to 2005 and currently writes for The Observer and The Guardian, in addition to writing novels.
Merritt read English at Queens' College, and graduated from Cambridge University in 1996.
Merritt's first novel Gaveston (Faber & Faber) won a Betty Trask Award from the Society of Authors in 2002. Her second novel was Real (2005), about a struggling young playwright, for which she was also commissioned to write the screenplay. In 2010, Heresy was published, her first novel in the series of historical fiction thrillers featuring Giordano Bruno, under the pseudonymS. J. Parris. It was followed by Prophecy (2011) and Sacrilege (2012). The fourth novel in the series is called Treachery and was published on 27 February 2014. The fifth novel in the series is called Conspiracy and was published in 2015.
She has also written a memoir, The Devil Within, published by Vermilion in 2008 and shortlisted for the Mind Book Award, which discusses her experiences living with depression.
Merritt has appeared regularly as a critic and panellist on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 4 Extra, has been a judge for the Costa Biography Award and the Orange New Writing Award as well as the Perrier Award, and is a regular interviewer and author at literary festivals, as well as the National Theatre. During 2007 and 2008 she curated the Talks and Debates programme on issues in contemporary arts and politics at London's Soho Theatre.
- Gaveston (2002)
- Real (2005)
- The Devil Within (2009)
- Giordano Bruno Series
- Heresy (2010)
- Prophecy (2011)
- Sacrilege (2012)
- Treachery (2014)
- Conspiracy (2016)
S.J. Parris, the pseudonym for Stephanie Merrit, is writing in the fairly crowded market of the historical/religious murder mystery, which brings with it both a potentially very loyal group of readers, or a series of comparisons to such writers as C.J. Sansom, creator of Elizabethan sleuth Matthew Shardlake (with a 6th book , Lamentation, scheduled for publication for Autumn 2014). So, series that establish a central character who is then followed through a number of adventures, which each installment building on and deepening the character of the central protagonist are part and parcel of this genre. Parris’ work fits neatly into this pattern, and by June 2014, her central character, Giordano Bruno has been on four adventures with a fairly heavy hint of a fifth installment set in Paris woven into the end of the latest book in the series, Treachery. So, let’s back track a bit and look at the books in their sequence. The book to open the series was Heresy (Harper, 2010, ISBN 978-0007317707), which introduces us to an unexpected central character. Unusually for this type of series, the hero of the piece is a historical figure; in this case, Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), an apostate Dominican friar whose actual biographical facts make for quite a sensational story of their own anyway, even regardless of his literary reinvention as one of Sir Francis Walsingham’s spies! Parris draws on facts of Bruno’s established bibliography and fills in the gaps, focusing especially on Bruno’s years in England between 1583-85. Bruno met Philip Sydney and was part of the hermetic circle surrounding John Dee, so these facts become part of the narrative for Heresy (Book 1) and Prophecy (Book 2). The historical Bruno, a ceaselessly energetic, inquisitive theologian-philosopher- mathematician of clearly considerable personal charisma but little willingness to compromise establishes an excellent stereotypical protagonist for the story as the literary ‘Bruno’ stands on his own and is free to form attachments doomed to failure because we all know that in the end, he will be tried for heresy and executed. So what Parris has done here is to create a hero where there is little need for a backstory- she knows that the type of reader attracted to a historical murder mystery is likely to have historical knowledge already- and this allows her to play, keep the reader guessing about plot lines and every so often, she moves from fiction to fact and weaves the fictional story into the established historical narrative. This tension between fact and fiction is skillfully handled and as is the sign of a good book, it ceases to matter very quickly and the reader becomes instead involved with the story. Heresy, the first book, is set in Oxford in 1583 and a series of spectacularly gruesome murders (we are talking people mauled by dogs, slit throats, stabbed altar boys, that sort of things) following key passages from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs unfold like staged set pieces. Clearly, the murders are motivated by religious dissent so of course the excommunicated apostate Bruno gets embroiled and starts to investigate. The plot revolves around recusants in Oxford colleges and before it all resolves itself there are priest holes, books on the Index of Prohibited Books, damsels in distress and a wonderful villain in as good a page turner as one might wish for. The characters are beautifully set out and the plot is developed well in a believably conceived historic setting. Heresy, the second book, is set in London and has some wonderful sequences set at Hampton Court which allow Parris to showcase her research and in lending the court sequences such gravitas and authenticity, she of course has gained the trust of the reader for her plot that revolves around the Great Conjunction of 1583, and the concomitant fears and superstitions surrounding that date.Where in 1524 the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the Constellation of Pisces led to fears of the end of the World, the coming of the Antichrist and generally political unrest (some contemporaries associated Luther and the Reformation with this conjunction), the recurrence of this conjunction, in October 1583, was seen by astrologers as a challenge to the reign of Elizabeth I. And again, thrusting the excommunicated Giordano Bruno into this heady mix of astrology, heresy, prophecy, not to mention murder, makes for a great backdrop to a carefully crafted and engaging story. In the third outing for Bruno, in Sacrilege, the scene of the crime- and therefore of the action- moves from London to Canterbury (Parris again moving her historical character into a fictional setting) where Bruno finds himself up to his neck in the goings on inside the great Cathedral. Parris picks up a few of the story threads from her first book, Heresy, developing the theme of Catholic recusants providing political opposition to Elizabeth I’s reign, focusing in particular on changed modes of church worship. The cult of saints, practices such as Masses to the Dead, reliquaries, pilgrimage etc were an important expression of medieval Christianity, and Parris thrusts Bruno into a context where memories of the old religion were still very much part of a community’s religious make up. Where the high point of Prophecy were the set pieces at Hampton Court, their place is taken in Sacrilege by a series of sequences played out in Canterbury’s Court of Assizes. Treachery, the fourth instalment in the series, reunites Bruno with his friend Philip Sydney at Portsmouth. Of course there has been a murder, this time on board of Sir Francis Drake’s flagship, so this time Parris stages her action in a port and against the expectation both of an imminent invasion of England by a Spanish Armada but also at he height of Drake’s fame with hopes for riches and gains made in the New World at a fever pitch. Bruno again finds himself embroiled in a mystery that deepens as the body count rises with the story resolving itself in a a fabulously swash-buckling finale including secret tunnels and derring-dos on board Drake’s ship. These are great page turners that combine a fabulous grasp of story telling and characterisation with a sure sense of historical context and will I be reading the fifth one, the one where Bruno returns to Paris! Definitely! We have 8 years left between Bruno’s return to Paris and his trial and imprisonment for heresy in Rome. He has yet to reach Wittenberg and Padua, and yes, of course I know that his adventures are fictional, but I like Parris’ way of bringing fiction and facts together. *** Below are details of the books and some links to published reviews- enjoy. Heresy (Harper, 2010, ISBN 978-0007317707) Prophecy (Harper, 2011, ISBN 978-0007317738) Reviewed by Sophia Martelli in the Observer; Anna Mundow for the Washington Post Sacrilege (Harper, 2012, ISBN 978-0007317783) Treachery (Harper, 2014, ISBN 978-0007481194) – reviewed by John Gallagher(@earlymodernjohn) for The Telegraph