Shakespeare in Trouble

I’d rather neglected/forgotten/given up my plan for using this blog for occasional reviews, but was tempted back . . .

Shakespeare in Trouble: a case for Richard Palmer, Investigator

By Chris Crowcroft (AESOP Modern, 2015)

Digression for a quick history lesson . . . In 1601, in an act of rebellion which was shambolic even by Elizabethan standards, the Earl of Essex attempted to stir up the city of London against Queen Elizabeth, whom he’d offended by failing to crush the rebellion in Ireland and who was clearly coming to the end of her reign with no named successor. (The alleged Catholic sympathies of the wife of the most likely – and eventual – claimant, James IV of Scotland, put fears of a deal with the Old Enemy, Spain, and loss of power in those who had done well out of the Protestant establishment.) One of Essex’s co-conspirators was the Earl of Southampton, an early patron of William Shakespeare, and it was a play by Shakespeare – the politically dodgy Richard II, with its shocking deposition of a monarch – which was funded by some of the conspirators shortly before Essex led his men out on to the streets.

Clearly an awkward moment for the Bard of Avon.

And so . . .The Queen is Not Happy. Richard Palmer, a seedy informer (he prefers the word “investigator”) who was once a gentleman is caught up in the crowd on the day of the abortive coup. He is called up by Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s Chief Minister and the hub of her network of spies, and a former university companion, and set to work on unravelling the nature of the relationship between Southampton and Shakespeare and the conspiracy. Shakespeare has fled to Stratford, and Palmer follows his tracks, first investigating the playwright’s writings – including a series of suspicious sonnets (which were, of course, largely unpublished at the time) which seem to shed interesting light on the relationship between patron and poet. On the way back with Shakespeare, Palmer is ambushed and shot at, and there is clearly more to be considered. In Stratford itself, we have met other members of the Shakespeare family (including his daughter Susanna and her to-be husband the physician John Hall), but another character, a dark-haired woman, seems to be a link between many of the characters including Palmer himself.

Palmer’s viewpoint, in fact, holds everything together. We learn that his father’s stubborn adherence to the Old Faith has wrecked the family fortunes. Palmer is university-educated (even if as “a charity case obliged to serve his betters”) and has the typical university man’s disdain for the upstart crows typified by the glove-maker’s son from Stratford. Some of the best asides in the novel are Palmer’s disgust for the amateur doggerel of his quarry and the low-life players he writes for, but, jokes aside (and anyone with a love for the literature of the time will find much to smile at here: there’s a reference to Christopher Marlowe which, probably wisely, I am not going to unpick, but says quite a lot about Palmer), Crowcroft’s picture of Palmer’s time and place is vivid without going too far overboard into the sordid and squalid. The sheer filth of the time is not overlooked, but what comes across is straightforward everyday differences like the time it actually takes to travel from London to Stratford. As for Shakespeare himself, he remains enigmatic, but is also given some good lines in defence of his art. While Palmer develops a growing respect for him, there is also a sense that he is a flawed man, as much out of line in the world of politics and religious dogma as Palmer himself.

Shakespeare in Trouble is in part (indeed, is mostly) a conspiracy thriller/detective investigation with an appealingly convincing private eye who combines the hard-boiled soft centre of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe with the downwardly-mobile disgust of the malcontents found in a somewhat later playwright: John Webster (think that scene in Shakespeare in Love where Our Will comes across a ragged fanboy with pet rat who tells  Shakespeare how much he loves the gory bits in his plays). But while Crowcroft holds his deep knowledge of matters Shakespearian lightly (and in the interest of full disclosure I will admit that we were taught English and History by the same slightly deranged teachers who by god certainly made the whole thing a baroque experience[*]), the novel also dramatises extremely readably the background to the Essex rebellion, the “Dark Lady” question of the sonnets, and other literary-historical questions that have been part of the Shakespeare mystery. However, its delight is that you don’t actually have to know much of this to enjoy the novel. Everything is explained clearly and contextually. What remains a mystery is supposed to remain a mystery. It’s an entertaining and amusing read, and a definitely strong addition to the canon of historical crime-thrillers.

The novel ends with an epilogue a couple of years later with James VI of Scotland now on his way south to become also James I of England and with Shakespeare’s company now renamed the King’s Men. Palmer is now back on the skids, with his only client an Alderman whose kink is reading about what his errant wife is up to. But there’s going to be quite a bit of history to cover, and some interesting relationships between Shakespeare and the new regime to explore. In theatrical and literary terms (and you might need to trust me on this), things start to get really interesting.

May we see Palmer on another case? I hope so.

[*]Those who get what I mean will also welcome the in-joke on page 126.

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