Book review: The Shakespeare Secret, by J.L. Carrell

I’ve just finished reading The Shakespeare Secret (published in the US as ‘Interred with their bones’), by JL Carrell and it’s very good (at least as far as I can tell – there are far too many qualified Shakespeareans around here for me to dare be too definitive!). Somewhere between a thriller and a murder mystery full of conspiracies and conspiracy theories – the blurb rather unjustly compared it to the Da Vinci Code (this is the least of the blurb’s sins, I regret to say); I’d say Katherine Neville was closer and that this was still out of her class.

I bought the book after hearing Carrell interviewed by one third of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. She sounded intelligent and entertaining and as though she had done her research, and this seemed like a good enough reason to give the book a try.

The first thing I have to tell you, though, is that if you pick this book up *do not read the blurb*. It gives away events that occur well into the story (200 pages in, in one case). I don’t mind spoilers in general, but when the book is really designed to be full of twists and turns, I don’t (for example) like to look at the location of a character and realise that clearly this person is going to be murdered in a particular way within the next few pages, even though I don’t know by whom and even though the character does not appear to be in any danger at this point. Yes, it’s a murder mystery, yes, the phrase ‘serial killer’ is used on the cover (somewhat unjustly, I think, but yes, for those of you familiar with my normal taste in novels, this one is rather darker than I would normally prefer), so yes, I know people are going to die, but knowing the who and the where before I know the why or the how is very, very annoying.

But even the blurb writer can’t really ruin this book, because what is most fun about it is the fact that the author was, I believe, an academic who specialised in Shakespeare, and she is clearly having an absolute whale of a time unearthing every possible authorship theory, lost manuscript theory, dark lady / fair young man theory, or catholic conspiracy theory, and letting us know just what she thinks of them. She can do this more readily because her main character, Kate Howard, is a Shakespeare scholar turned theatre director, so naturally she has these facts at her fingertips. I also like the way the author, in an afterword, does not merely explain which historical characters are real and which she made up, but also explains which letters, diary entries and manuscripts are real, which were made up, and which are known to have existed but are no longer extant so she felt that she had free rein to use them. This makes me happy and gives the whole thriller / treasure hunt / murder mystery a certain historical plausibility.

Her characters are lovely – intelligent, convincing, and complex. I don’t want to say too much about them, as Carrell also keeps you guessing for much of the book which are the good guys and which are the bad guys. I did, in the end, guess better than the heroine did, but then, I wasn’t also trying to solve the mystery of missing manuscripts, cope with the loss of a close former friend / mentor, and not get myself killed. This gave me enough distance to start calculating who actually could have been where at particular times, but I can see why Kate couldn’t (which is good – there is nothing worse than the brilliant heroine / hero who can’t logic her way out of a paper sack). Anyway, I really do love Kate, and Sir Henry is just glorious in so many ways. He gets some truly wonderful lines (as one might expect of a great elder statesman of the stage). And I really, really like the whole subplot about the fair young man and where that ends up going.

Damn, I wish I could write more about this book without giving away copious amounts of plot. But I shall restrain myself, and simply say that this book is very good fun, very well- and cleverly-written, full of appealing characters and really interesting theories about Shakespeare, with an ending that is touching, tragic, and deeply appropriate. Well, one of the endings is, anyway. You could say this book has several.

Basically, I think you should read it and then come tell me what you think of it.

As for me, I’ll be busy reading the next book. I think it’s safe to foresee that Carrell will have an absolute field day with the Scottish Play…

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