Jennifer Lee Carrell
The question of "Who wrote all those Shakespeare plays?" has circulated for at least a couple of centuries. I vaguely recall doing a research paper on the topic back in college, well over 20 years ago. It arises because of a belief that what's known about the person of William Shakespeare - which isn't very much, other than a fairly humble background and a career as an actor - doesn't seem to jibe with the wide breadth of knowledge about subjects such as history and court life that whoever wrote the plays attributed to him would seem to require. It's a question that probably can't truly be answered, nearly four centuries later, but it's a fascinating riddle. For Shakespearean scholar and theater director Kate Stanley, principal character of Jennifer Lee Carrell's debut novel, Interred With Their Bones, it comes close to being a deadly one.
The novel shares certain elements with a very popular thriller of the last few years - a search for a lost object, an attempt to unravel a conspiracy, and dodging adversaries who want the main character stopped by any means necessary - but I don't think that comparisons would be fair to Interred With Their Bones. The controversial mystery at its heart is less wide-ranging and shocking, for one thing; but more importantly, it's just a much better book. The necessary expository scenes don't bring the narrative to a screeching halt, for one thing. It's well-written as well as well-plotted, and Carrell, a Shakespearean scholar herself, knows her subject as she blends fact and speculation. The story is suspenseful from the very start - in the way that makes you force yourself to take reading breaks and catch your breath sometimes - with twists and turns that will keep you guessing about characters' motives as well as what will befall them next, anxious about who will be next to meet a grisly Shakespearean end (it's not just a lost-item mystery and a conspiracy mystery, it's also a murder mystery), and will sometimes send you back to re-read sections. And it's smart, but not intimidating. Some familiarity with Shakespeare, and Elizabethan history, isn't necessary to enjoy it, but might help a reader appreciate it more.
I enjoy a good plot-driven novel, but it takes characters to really draw me in, and Carrell's choice to make Kate a first-person narrator is a good one, in my opinion. It increases the sense of urgency and mystery as we're right there with her the whole time. There are still things I'd like to know about her, and I hope Carrell will re-visit her in a future novel, since I'm quite sure I'll be up for reading it.
In addition to that very popular thriller, I've read some comparisons of Interred With Their Bones to Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian. I can see where those comparisons might be made, since both are intelligent mysteries with similar basic plot points, but since I've been stalled on The Historian for several months now, I'd have to give the edge to Carrell over Kostova. (I am feeling a little more of a pull to go give The Historian another chance and go back and finish it soon, though.)
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And for some more background and plot summary, check out this post from September 14 on the Amazon.com Bookstore Blog:
That abrupt sound you heard this past Monday was the heads of all the publicists at Dutton/Penguin exploding as they browsed the Internet and learned, as reported here, that a "Declaration of Reasonable Doubt" renouncing Shakespeare as the author of his own plays had been filed by the former artistic director of the Globe Theater, Mark Rylance, and British actor Derek Jacobi.Why did all of their heads explode en masse? Because in a colossal coincidence of, yes, mind-blowing proportions, Dutton has launched a harrowing, pulse-pounding who-dun-them-Shakespeare-plays thriller this month: Jennifer Lee Carrell's Interred with Their Bones (rights sold at the Frankfurt Book Fair to over 20 countries). In the novel, the Globe Theater is burned down and director Katharine Stanley must go on the run, her life in possible danger. In a cat-and-mouse double-hunt--unknown assassins for Stanley, Stanley for the truth about Shakespeare--author Carrell offers up a lost manuscript, a series of theories about Shakespeare's true identity, and enough plot reversals to make a pro tennis umpire go cross-eyed.How's this for a bends-inducing novel itinerary: London, Boston, Utah, Arizona, Washington D.C., and back to England. In Interred With Their Bones, a Shakespeare conference where scholars argue about the Bard's identity can be as exciting and deadly as an encounter in an old mine in Arizona. (Sure, some of it is manipulative, but it's all so interesting you're happy to just go along for the ride.)Who was Shakespeare, really? Was there really a lost manuscript that could prove his identity beyond a reasonable doubt? If you want one set of answers, you'll have to read the novel. Carrell, who has directed the Bard at Harvard, knows her plays and her Shakespeare, so you'll have fun learning about the controversy even as you wonder how her heroine's possibly going to get out of her current jam.Somehow, I think it's possible the guys who filed their "Reasonable Doubt" are reading the book right now.