A former Shakespearian scholar, Kate Stanley has recently discovered her love for the theater. A chain of lucky events helped her land a position as the director of Hamlet at the Globe, and she couldn’t be happier. When her former mentor, Roz Howard, pays her a visit and hints at a mystery she has uncovered and needs Kate’s help with, Kate is less than thrilled, as her current job is more important to her than chasing shadows with/for Roz.
But then the Globe is set on fire (on the very anniversary of the day the original Globe theatre’s fire), and Roz is found dead. Which makes the mystery she mentioned earlier Kate’s number one priority: she feels she must do everything in her power to find out who killed Roz, and why. It all starts with a brooch, and the mention of a book…
This is a classical case of book that I start with very low expectations and ends up surpassing them. I have had this book at the top of my to-read list for years now, and, as I considered reading it, I browsed through a few of its reviews, just to remember what it was supposed to be about. To my disappointment, its latest ratings on Goodreads were all 1- and 2-stars, and so I braced myself for quite a bad book. Which is probably why I ended up liking it :) While it is not one of my all time favorites, some things in it worked well for me (and others didn’t), so on the whole I am not sorry I gave it a try.
The book is the classical ‘travel around the world searching for clues’ type, and so our characters get to visit many interesting places, such as Valladolid, Stratford-Upon-Avon, and even the Old West. The author has a Ph. D. in English from Harvard, and I was happy to see that a part of the story takes place in Harvard’s buildings. Another interesting place was a ghost town somewhere in the US called Shakespeare (a place that actually exists)1, where an eccentric millionaire has built a copy of the castle that was the inspiration for Hamlet’s Elsinore :)
The characters are not the forte of the book, they felt to me more like vehicles that moved the story along. I quite liked Kate (“Not yet thirty, American, and trained first and foremost as a scholar“), but her resourcefulness, albeit usual in such books, was a bit too much at times — she’s never jet-lagged, never truly afraid, although people were dying right and left. And she doesn’t know about Cardenio, despite specializing in Shakespeare(?) (my reaction when the name was mentioned was something like “OMG! Shakespeare’s missing novel!”, whereas Kate’s was more along the lines of “where oh where have I heard the name before?”).
The rest of the cast is more or less glossed over — Benjamin for example does not talk too much about himself, so we know little to nothing about his previous life. He runs a security firm with lots of resources that apparently he affords to spend scouring the world with Kate (I doubt that Roz, the one who technically hired him as Kate’s bodyguard, has paid him enough money for all his and Kate’s arrangements). In a way I liked having him around, as every time something serious was needed (such as passports, or clothes) the solution was simple, “Ben will get it”. A thing that admittedly made matters too simple for our characters to feel truly real, but also allowed me, as a reader, to focus more on the mystery/Shakespeare-related parts, rather than having to bother with the more mundane ones.
I don’t have anything to say about this, as I felt the characters were not well formed enough to have meaningful relationships. There is one notable exception actually, the state of the matters between Roz and Kate (as remembered by the latter throughout the book). Roz was a dedicated scholar, a perfectionist and very rarely offering praise. However, the less than amiable way she treated Kate turned out to have been nothing more than a façade, as apparently Kate was her favorite assistant (and, of course, everyone knew that but Kate).
Have I mentioned there is a strong similarity to the DaVinci Code? (there’s even a well-meaning policeman that follows the h & H) :)
Which means that you probably know by now that the plot is shaped by solving small mysteries, and each of them leads to a bigger one. The stakes? Solving the two biggest Shakespeare-related mysteries ever: finding out who actually wrote his plays, and discovering a manuscript of Cardenio, one of Shakespeare’s two lost works. This hunt for clues is the central part of the book, and was quite well done (albeit stretching the imagination at times it was never truly implausible), which is probably why I ultimately enjoyed reading it. :)
What I liked most
As previously stated, there were many things that did work for me. First and foremost, the clues were very well set up at times (my favorite being the “Jacobean magnus opus”/1623 thing). Especially as, in her Afterword, the author takes the time to tell us what parts were imagined by her and what is actually true, and it was very interesting to me how much of the story does actually exist. The mystery of Shakespeare’s being involved or not in the translation of the King James Bible for example, complete with a small Easter egg — did you know that the 46th word in the 46th psalm is “shake” and the 46th word counting from the end is “spear”? Some people consider this a hidden message to show that Shakespeare (presumed to be 46 in the year the translation was made) has taken part in the translation. Of course the chances are that we will never know the truth, but it is an interesting tidbit nonetheless.
The whole debate about who actually wrote Shakespeare’s books was quite interesting to me, as I got to find out new things/theories about it. While I do not have an opinion on the matter (if so many scholars could not agree, how could I pretend any certainty about it), I nonetheless find the very existence of such a mystery quite interesting, and I love reading about it.
Having the people being killed thought of as “changing their names” into the Shakespeare’s characters whose fate their shared was also an interesting idea (although I am not convinced that it was worth it for the killer to keep emulating characters’ deaths, not that I’m complaining :) ). I liked the idea of someone “forcing other people into his favorite fictions, and those fictions into life“, even if in this case it involved death.
Another idea that I liked:
“Roz told me that Shakespeare’s language is so thick because his stage was so bare,” he said without looking up. “No scenery. Nothing but costumes and a few props.”
I jumped. I hadn’t realized that he’d noticed me.
“He built his worlds from words.”
What I liked least
There are a few scenes in the book that take place in Shakespeare’s times, having the man himself as a character (and a few others). I started out quite interested in them, of course, but they were so few and far between that they eventually turned boring (I couldn’t get invested in them as there was very little action in them; also, sometimes they mirrored facts that Kate’s present-day investigation has discovered). So yeah, I could definitely have done without them.
My least favorite moment however is this:
Wordlessly, we picked up our pace to something just under a run. A growl rose in the distance, then a humming ran through the pipes, lights flickered through the tunnel, and I realized what was happening. Someone had finally reached the electricity; if it went on before we reached the door, it would lock and we’d be trapped.
(h & H are in a tunnel, and if/when the power comes back on the tunnel door will be sealed — all nice and well, but am I really expected to believe that people can run faster than power travels through lines?)
Thoughts on the title
For some reason the book was renamed in the UK as “The Shakespeare Secret”, which is totally bland compared with the original title. I happen to find the latter quite cool :) (although I was a bit confused at first as I have taken it way too literally, and I thought it referred to people being interred with their bones — making me wonder, could they have been interred without? Silly, I know).
It all starts with a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.“, which constitutes a clue of sorts (one of the characters hides something in a grave at one time, and writes in a letter how she hopes “[t]hat the good that we do might live on after us, while the evil lies interred with their bones.“). Last but not least, the manuscript itself is found somewhere below ground, together with the remains of the people who brought it there — so yeah, “interred with their bones”, and I liked that :)
Thoughts on the ending
As great as the author was when it came to Shakespeare-related stuff, she was less so when it came to suspense/plot-related matters. There are some twists and turns near the end, some of them less plausible than others. But, in Shakespeare’s own words, “all’s well that ends well” :) As I am sure you’ve noticed by now the things that had me excited about the book are unrelated to the actual plot, so I suppose any ending would have been fine with me :)
Recommend it to?
People who like the kind of stories where one clue leads to another, which in turn leads to another and then another :) Also, I think your interest in Shakespeare (or lack of it thereof) will have a decisive role in whether you enjoy the book or not, as I have seen people complaining there’s too much of an info dump at times — yet I noticed no such thing. Actually, I would have liked to be told more :)
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- I had no idea that people in the Old West knew or cared about Shakespeare, but apparently they did [↩]