Monday, September 17, 2007

Love Shakespeare? Read This

I'm a sucker for what's used called an 'intellectual mystery.' This genre used to be the domain of writers like Umberto Eco (at the brain-achingly intellectual end of the scale) and Arturo Perez-Reverte (at the mystery end), who wrote thick novels with multiple plotlines involving books and scrolls and letters and more letters and conspiracies involving the Church and occult organizations and the what-not. Then it was hijacked almost entirely by That Guy Who Wrote That Book About That Code and car-chases were thrown into the mix and the genre, to my mind, lost a little bit of its appeal (although I did, for the record, blaze through That Book in one sitting and enjoyed it.)

So I'm always on the lookout for novels that are throwbacks to the genre that was perfected, in my opinion, by writers like Eco and Reverte (and Iain Pears and Katherine Neville) in the late eighties and nineties of the last century - when, that is, I'm not reading the latest releases from those authors. I haven't discovered any contributions to the genre that would rank as 'classic' lately, but my most recent read came close.

Interred With Their Bones by Jennifer Lee Carrell ("A long-lost work of Shakespeare, newly found. A killer who stages the Bard’s extravagant murders as flesh-and-blood realities. A desperate race to find literary gold, and just to stay alive. . . . ") came very close to ranking with the classics. It has all the right ingredients: interesting historical mystery involving real history (Shakespeare), lots of esoteric interpretation of real and fictional texts, and excitement and adventure and all the things that make a classic. It also, however, has car chases, and more than a few implausibly narrow escapes from death, and the de rigeur plucky heroine who is determined to see the mystery through on her own, dammit, but who nonetheless needs to be rescued, time and again, by a hunky male help-mate (with a mysterious background, no less) when her pluckiness gets her into trouble. These aren't bad things, per se, but they do ring a tinny formulaic note in a book that is otherwise rich in plot and ideas. It's almost as if the author had the movie pitch running through her mind as she was writing - it's Shakespeare In Love meets The Da Vinci Code! It's Indiana Jones for girls who love theatre! - and shaped her characters and directed their actions accordingly.

I can forgive all of that - there are worse literary sins than evoking movie templates. And the author goes a long way to making up for it by weaving a fascinating story around the mystery of Shakespeare's real identity. Her real accomplishment with this novel is, I would say, her success in making the mysterious Shakespeare jump off the page as a character in his own right - even as she preserves the sense of mystery around the question of who he really was. This can't have been an easy task, given that the thrust of the mystery relies entirely upon that uncertainty concerning his identity. This is what kept me turning the page, wanting to discover more - not the fate of the characters pursuing the mystery (I had little invested in these characters, and guessed the identity of the real villian early on), but the fate of the mystery itself. What would the story reveal? What would be Shakespeare's fate?

This is no small accomplishment, not least, as I've already said, because the narrative tension depends upon the reader not knwoing who or what Shakespeare really is. That Shakespeare lives and breathes as a full-fledged character in this novel under those circumstances is tribute to the author's investment in that character and to the story and to her skill in telling it. It was what kept me glued to the book, even as I rolled my eyes a little bit at some of the characters. It was what elevated this book, for me, above some of the more popular contributions to the genre (coughDaVincicough).

It's no Foucault's Pendulum or The Name of the Rose, and so it's not an immediate classic for me, but it's good enough to compare the classics of the genre. And that's saying a lot.

This review is part of the MotherTalk tour for Interred With Their Bones. You can follow more reviews here.

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