This Shakespearean “who-dun-it” is a delightful contribution to this particular genre of historical mystery. It is a glorious mash-up of DaVinci Code-like code-breaking and world-hopping combined with the inexhaustible debate over the disputed authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, and of course, the identity of Shakespeare himself. The chapters jump back and forth between the period of Shakespeare and the present-day, where people within the literary, academic and theater worlds are dying like Shakespeare’s characters, and no one has a clue who the bad guy is, including our heroine Kate Stanley who is leading the charge to uncover the mystery.
Kate left Harvard’s hallowed walls and her mentor, leading Shakespearean expert Rosalind Howard, several years earlier, and jumped into the theatre with both feet. She has just garnered the coveted position of directing Hamlet at London’s famous Globe theater when the unthinkable happens: Rosalind appears out of the blue, hands Kate a gift-wrapped mystery, and then dies like Hamlet’s father—poisoned through the ear—in the midst of a fiery inferno that takes out most of the Globe. The renowned “old man of the British theater” Sir Henry Lee, who had the role of the ghost in the now-postponed Hamlet production, joins up with Kate as does Rosalind’s nephew, a security specialist, and off they go, first to Harvard, then out to Utah, then to Spain before returning to London. At each stop along the way, the onion’s layers get peeled away, Kate is threatened with a scary knife-wielding shadow, and people die.
It’s all about a missing Shakespeare play which some people would die to have and others would die to bury forever. What makes Carrell’s novel so complex, so exciting but also often so very confusing, is her ambitious effort to fuse the present with the past. Her well-researched forays into the politics of the time of Shakespeare, which include royal shenanigans, the Catholic witch-hunts in England, the jockeying for power among the nobility, love triangles, hidden messages, and lots of assassinations, are fascinating and give a background to the Shakespeare debate which, however fictionalized, makes for interesting reading. Carrell herself, speaking through the voice of one of her characters in the novel, makes it clear that she is less interested in the identity of Shakespeare than in the glory of his words.
But what really got my juices going was Carrell’s special area of interest, the widespread appreciation of Shakespeare in the American West of the 1800s, a relatively unknown fact which plays a key element in this story. Who else but Shakespeare could pull together whores, gold prospectors, drunks, and gun-slinging adventurers for a rousing night of classical theater which spoke directly to them, albeit through the mouths of kings. Elements of many of Shakespeare’s plays, and Cervantes’ Don Quijote as well, are brought into the plot, along with untold numbers of quotations from those classics, and those readers who don’t love these classics as much I do may find themselves periodically lost in all the cross-centuries’ drama. Indeed, the author’s deliberate efforts to obscure the identities of some of her characters I found rather too effective, leaving me in the dark any number of times as well.
I also found the red herrings thrown in repeatedly in the final portion of the book to be rather heavy-handed. But sticking with this messy excursion into murder, mayhem and literary mystery will prove worth it in the end.