Chasing the Bard

Jennifer Lee Carrell puts Dan Brown to shame with her new Shakespearean novel

A month ago, the 287-member Shakespeare Authorship Coalition, which includes actors Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, signed a "declaration of reasonable doubt," hoping to spur responsible scholarly research into the authorship of William Shakespeare's plays.

The coalition claims that "it is not possible that the Bard's plays--with their emphasis on law--could have been penned by a 16th-century commoner raised in an illiterate household." It asks "why most of his plays are set among the upper classes, and why Stratford-Upon-Avon is never referred to in any of his plays," and demands, "How did he become so familiar with all things Italian so that even obscure details in these plays are accurate?"

These are exceptionally foolish questions. Chronically class-conscious Brits won't even entertain the notion that an individual with intelligence, ambition or determination could rise above his or her origins. And why didn't Shakespeare set his plays in his hometown? Because the audiences in London had no interest in slice-of-life, lower-class drama. They wanted exactly what Shakespeare wrote: history plays, high tragedy with great people falling far and hard, comedies of disguise and romances.

And how did Shakespeare "become so familiar with all things Italian?" As scholars have shown for decades, he borrowed heavily from other plays and printed sources. It's called research. Sometimes, it's even called plagiarism.

Perhaps some or all of Shakespeare's plays were not written (solely) by Shakespeare, but the inquiry should be conducted by people with greater insight into human character than has been displayed by this coalition. Somebody like Tucsonan Jennifer Lee Carrell.

Wisely, Carrell limits her investigation to the realm of fiction. Her debut novel, Interred With Their Bones, is a literary thriller in which a savvy woman with a doctorate in literature and experience directing Shakespeare (someone much like Carrell herself) chases down a killer, a lost Shakespeare play and the true authorship of the Bard's canon.

OK, so we have a scholar overeducated in literary and historical arcana flitting from library to manor house to archive to cathedral, across Europe and America, dodging corpses and trying to uncover a contemporary conspiracy that seems to be covering up a historical conspiracy. Sounds suspiciously like Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.

Except that, first of all, Brown is an execrable stylist and clunky plotter, whereas Carrell knows how to write a colorful, graceful sentence and manages to make the inevitable plot contrivances seem reasonable. True, some of the expository dialogue can briefly get a bit stiff, and you can't glance at any random sentence and know immediately which character is speaking, but the prose is never less than readable, and usually, it's much more than that.

Kate Stanley is an authority on "occult Shakespeare"--not the witchy stuff in Macbeth, but all things hidden and obscure about the Bard and his work. That means a deep familiarity not only with Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, but also with the surrounding Elizabethan scene, and the claims made on behalf of more than a half-dozen alternative authors.

Kate's oddball former mentor lures her into a mystery shortly before turning up dead in a highly Shakespearean fashion. Kate soon finds herself racing just ahead of the killer, and the cops, on the trail of whatever it is the mentor has sent her after; for a long time, Kate isn't really sure what she's looking for.

Eventually, it seems that she may be chasing down, among other things, the manuscript of a lost Shakespeare play drawn from an episode in Don Quixote. The clues take her from London's Globe Theatre (which seems to be going down in flames as she departs) to Harvard (whose library similarly requires a visit from the fire department) to the Folger Library (nothing but blood in her wake there) to a remarkable reproduction of Hamlet's palace hidden in a New Mexico ghost town.

Along the way, we learn about Elizabethan intrigue, Shakespeare's popularity in the Wild West, secret codes and obscure literary history. Carrell makes some of this stuff up--she gives details in an afterword so that, unlike readers of The Da Vinci Code, you won't mistakenly think everything is gospel truth--but her inventions are convincing. Carrell is even a fine literary ventriloquist, dropping into the text stylistically accurate passages from Jacobean epistles, Victorian diaries and the Tombstone Epitaph.

Yet she's not pulling off a literary stunt like Anthony Burgess' pseudo-Shakespearean Nothing Like the Sun; Carrell is fundamentally a storyteller, and even if it's difficult for the reader to sort out a few things, the quest is grand and harrowing.

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