Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Much Ado About Murder Review

Much Ado About Murder -- edited by Anne Perry

Mystery stories inspired by Shakespeare? Count me in.

These are mostly period stories or stories about the events of the plays, rather than modern tales involving Shakespearean elements – perfectly valid, and because of my interest in translating mystery to a “standard” fantasy setting, more up my alley. I did start with some prejudice, however: I am dubious of any anthology where a) the editor describes the stories in the introduction, in glowing prose and b) the editor has a story in the anthology. I imagine it’s torture for an editor NOT to pitch in with a themed anthology, particularly if they took on the project with personal interest or as a labor of love … but I find it a bit tacky.

Jeffery Deaver’s “All The World’s A Stage” is an Elizabethan tale about a London man who learns that his father was murdered by a man now favored at court – and sets about to have his revenge without being caught. Mystery story? Perhaps not, but a well-paced tale cleanly unfolded nonetheless. At first, the involvement of Shakespeare seems gratuitious – an interjection made only to pacify the editor – but it comes clear in a fashion that is more than satisfying. The details in this story are authentic, but some segments of the narrative seemed “info-dumpy” – seems as if this author got caught up in the novelty of his research. As always, using period dialogue but modern narration is a tricky balance, and there are places where it jars, but I appreciate the authentic speech.

Enter Carole Nelson Douglas’ “Those Are Pearls That Were His Eyes,” a story which occurs after the events of The Tempest and also involves characters from The Merchant of Venice. Caliban is the principal point of view character, but the story invokes the format of a play early on, and moves into a half-omniscience. Here, the dialogue is natural, suited to the lingering, evocative narration with which the story opens. Thereafter – to the detriment of the tale – it becomes almost pure dialogue, difficult to follow. The intimations of play-hood are not enough to dispell this sensation of disembodied talk. For other reasons, I found this story confusing to follow. Caliban was well-portrayed as a sympathetic character, however, and the ultimate conclusion was a satisfying one.

“The Fall of the House of Oldenborg” by Robert Barnard is a tongue-in-cheek retelling of the events in Hamlet, as told by the Silent Irishman, a scheming syncophant who accompanies “Hammy” on his quest. Again, this isn’t truly a mystery story – at least, we know from the start how it will turn out, though there are some surprises along the way. I enjoyed some of the humorous elements of this story, but I thought that it trended into the category of “too silly” – it was hard to identify with the characters through the comic detachment, or to sustain much (if any) tension. I didn’t find it funny enough to overcome these weaknesses, though this is a clever read.

There is great delight in Sharan Newman’s “Jack Hath Not His Jill,” a period story written as a letter from Anne, Princess of France. After a puzzling reception, she sets out to determine the true force behind the throne of Navarre. Where this story shines is its narrator, bright and feisty while still being a perfect portrayal of early royalty. I did become a little lost in the letter. I also had trouble keeping track of the cast of characters, but I think this is a flaw of my not being familiar with the play on which the story was based – and possibly how tired I was when reading the story. I still enjoyed the conclusion, and there was much fun in being along for the ride.

I came away from “Gracious Silence” by Gillian Linscott with exactly one thought: wow. This is the tale of timid Virgilia, wife of Coriolanus – whose silence carries her forward until she can be silent no more. Since reading The Handmaid’s Tale, I thought that a passive character couldn’t be a sympathetic narrator, nor star in a fulfilling story – this one proves me wrong. I came to sympathize deeply with the main character and her plight, and had a full appreciation for the strictures imposed on her both by ancient Roman society and by her imposing mother-in-law, Volumnia. If there is a flaw in this story, it is due to its placement: this is neither a mystery nor even really a murder story. What it is is a thoroughly engrossing read.

Yay! Twelfth Night!

Courtesy of Lillian Stewart Carl, “A Dish of Poison” fits seamlessly into the events of the play, a quasi-prelude wherein the newly-disguised Viola/Cesario is sent by Duke Orsino to discern the true facts behind the death of his beloved Olivia’s brother. This is a quick, lively tale with easy to follow clues (but not too easy) and a solid mystery at its core. There is even a smooth info-dump in the beginning for those not familiar with the plot of the play. A few famous Shakespearean lines weave naturally into the dialogue. Both old characters and new are well-defined and realistic – they come right off the page.

Not a mystery story, but “Too Many Cooks” by Marcia Talley is a delightful take on the events of Macbeth, from the POV of the (hapless) Weird Sisters, desperate to make a living from their sorcery with spell ingredients on the cheap. It is great fun to see how their good intentions run amok, and there are some really clever segues from the witches’ mistakes to the events of the play. My only small complaint with this story – and it scarcely marred my enjoyment – is that in the second half of the story, the witches are fairly passive, and the conclusion isn’t really in their hands. The characters are sympathetic, the story light and fun ... and you have to love an unexpected happy ending.

“Squinting at Death” by Edward Marston is a straightforward tale of detection centered around a murder that occurred on the bloody battlefield of Agincourt. He cleverly combines historical figures with characters from Shakespeare’s Henry V. The aftermath of the battle is depicted authentically without resorting to gore, and the main character’s determination to solve a crime in the midst of so much other death provides an interesting contrast. From a zinger of a comment in the denouement (to say more would be to give it away) to the ethnic pride of the Welshmen, this story is flavorful and enjoyable. I did feel that I was being “red-herringed” into expecting a political conspiracy in the beginning, however.

Simon Brett presents “Exit, Pursued,” a story set in the twilight days of Shakespearean theatre, when the bard battles with bear-baiting and an apathetic public. When one of the company is murdered, Charles Parys becomes an informal detective. This is a solid mystery story built on the foundations of its time and place – evocatively described and entertaining to read. I had only two small complaints: one, I thought that the characters perhaps spent too much time quoting the plays (there is a point when skillful incorporation becomes “laid on too thick”), and two, the conclusion hinted at a lack of conscience on the part of the detective that I found disquieting – and it didn’t seem supported by the rest of the story. Ultimately, this didn’t mar the story, and I intend to seek out more of Brett’s work.

“Richard’s Children” from Brendan DuBois wasn’t my cup of tea. This is a contemporary story of conspiracy surrounding two Richards – Richard the Third of Shakespearean (and historical) fame, and Richard Nixon. It’s an interesting premise that appeals to the paranoid theorist in all of us, but the story felt somehow hollow to me. Maybe the pacing was off; maybe I felt something was promised that wasn’t delivered. Certainly the connection to Shakespeare is more tenuous than I would have expected: we’re dealing with the historical Richard here, with only a few gratuitious references to the Bard thrown in. This almost feels like the first chapter of a novel … maybe what disappointed me was the worldbuilding turned into little more than a punchline.

Margaret Frazer’s “This World’s Eternity” presents an interesting variation on the mystery. The story contains an italicized monologue from one of the characters … but which is it? This one follows the events King Henry VI, and presents a satisfying tale at heart – for all its characters show the range of their vices. The opening of this story is somewhat shaky, as it bombards the reader with names and conflicts too rapidly to be digested, but it evens out as the tale continues. This wasn’t one of my favorites, but it is an interesting study of characters and subtle influences.

“Cleo’s Asp” by Edward D. Hoch takes us back to ancient Egypt and a clown turned investigator who must figure out which of Cleopatra’s maidservants have betrayed her. This is a well-written story with a sympathetic narrator and good pacing, but there are some flaws. With two servants, and the narrator having close sympathy for one of them, the conclusion paints too broad a stroke regardless of the guilty party. In addition, he knocks out a potential murder suspect – but alerts no guards and does nothing to restrain him. How does this make sense? I found the murder in this mystery to be bare, and it invited a twist that was too spurious to be effective.

Kathy Lynn Emerson’s “Much Ado About Murder” tackles one of Shakespeare’s most beloved heroines – and one of my personal favorites. She introduces Beatrice and Benedick seamlessly into the history and lives of her series sleuth, Lady Susanna Appleton – who takes it as a personal charge to smuggle Protestants out of the country during the rule of Queen Mary. When one of the transients turns up a corpse, it is up to the two women to find out who killed him. The main characters of Much Ado About Nothing are beautifully depicted; I was immediately taken by Emerson’s Beatrice. There is also nice trick of casting criminal suspicion on Shakespearean characters: would the author go that far from the traditional portrayal?

“The Serpent’s Tooth” by P.C. Doherty explores the possible murder of the most integral figure to Shakespeare’s works: the Bard himself. The physician Siggins arrives by royal decree to question daughter Susanna, and her husband, John Hall, in the wake of Shakespeare’s burial. This tale builds suspense and curiosity in a slow, effective expansion of details – the cat and mouse game between Siggins and the Halls is tense and absorbing to read, and build sympathy for the pair. There is one fairly major flaw in this story, a pair of uneven POV shifts with no scene break to demarcate them, but this is the only thing to interrupt the skillful construction of the story.

I admit to not being familiar with the play on which Peter Robinson’s “The Duke’s Wife” is based. To his credit, he attempts to summarize the events which leave Isabella married to the Duke and her good friend Mariana married to the scandalous Angelo … whose most recent crimes turn Isabella into an amateur investigator. However, the summary is somewhat clumsy, and the story which hangs on it somehow lacking. Maybe there isn’t enough space to develop sympathy with the characters. Maybe full connection with the story involves knowledge of the play, summary notwithstanding. For whatever reason, this one missed the mark with me.

Peter Tremayne often slathers on his historical information, and “‘Let The Game Begin!’” is no exception to this – but heavy history notwithstanding, this is an enjoyable story. This anthology opened with a tale of actors in jeopardy … now it closes with two in sequence. Constable Hardy Drew is summoned to the Red Boar Inn to investigate the death of a gentleman, but all is not as it seems. I liked this character and the strong sense of history in the story. The plot is well-paced with an interesting conclusion – enjoyable to follow with just enough clues to guess where it might be going. There’s also a nice, clear emotional arc for the main character, a lesson learned without being preachy.

Despite my reservations above, “Ere I Killed Thee” by Anne Perry is a worthy addition to this anthology. It is set in the Victorian period around a stage performance of Othello, and the theme of this work is elegantly woven into the tale of jealousy and revenge played out by its actor characters. While I was left with some questions as to the narrator’s early inaction, the mood and motive is otherwise expertly illuminated. I confess, however, that I guessed the murderer early on, which is a rarity for me and makes me wonder how well it was hidden. Finally, the ending involves a device that even I (who hasn’t read that many mysteries) recognize as a cliché. Flaws aside, this one balances out as an enjoyable tale, and a solid ending to the anthology.

Overall, this was a strong anthology with only two real mis-steps that I could see. One, half of the weakest stories were put right in the front. I can easily see a picky reader giving the entire anthology a miss on the basis of those stories, and that would be a shame. Two … no A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Given some of the plays that were used, the absence of this one seems to be a gaping hole. You might argue that the fantastic element makes it difficult to work with, but there’s a story about The Tempest in the anthology, and the representative Macbeth story is fantasy in character. Perhaps the editor simply didn’t receive any stories in this vein, or attempts to solicit one met with lapsed promises. Maybe I’m just biased.

Or maybe I’ll write one …

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