A Mystery of Errors

Reviewed: June 18, 2004
By: Simon Hawke
Publisher: TOR Books
240 pages, $8.99

William Shakespeare seems to have become increasingly popular as a fictional character in his own write, as evidenced by this, the first book in the second series I have run across this year to use him in this fashion.

What's useful about Will as a protagonist is that we don't very much about what he was doing from 1586 -1592. We know he was born in 1564, that he married young (and probably at the end of a sword) in 1582, and that he left Stratford a few years after that, apparently determined not to follow his father into the glover's trade. In 1592 he is mentioned disparagingly in a book by Robert Greene, by which time he was already known as a playwright and actor.

Lost years make for all sorts of possibilities, and Hawke, a college lecturer and author in several genres of speculative fiction, has decided to speculate in history this time.

This is the tale of two aspiring actors who meet on their way to London, find entry level work in the theatre, and get involved in a mystery.

William Shakespeare you know. He wants to be a writer, but will work the stage as well if need be. He has some talent for leather work and is as well read as any grammar school graduate could expect to be. He is sure of himself, ready to take on any literary challenge and determined to make his mark. Hawke makes him almost believable in his optimistic arrogance.

The totally fictional creation of this pair is Symington Smythe. Like Shakespeare, he's from an aspiring middle class family that is down on its luck. He's as well educated as Will and has been trained as a blacksmith and farrier, but that's not his ambition. Tuck, as he is know to his chums, wants to be an actor.

On the way to London he is accosted by an unusual highwayman named Black Billy, an acquaintance who will lead both of the young men into some adventures beyond what they might have had in mind. It is after this odd encounter that he meets Will at a nearby road house. They pool their resources for a night's lodging and meal and, finding each others' company congenial, carry on together.

They manage to land a berth working for a theatre company. They're ostlers to begin with, the 16th century equivalent of a valet parking service, but the fact that they are there means that they're on hand when one of the company's actors quits and the script, which just isn't working, needs a tune up.

They're also on hand when a young woman named Elizabeth Darcie comes to meet the man to whom her family has arranged her marriage, bent on making him wish the arrangement undone. So they are the witnesses she needs when the plan she and her betrothed, Sir Anthony Drummond (who loves another) had knit up to forestall the marriage begins to unravel.

They are near by when Sir Anthony is apparently murdered in the street, and again when it seems that he hasn't been.

In a plot which borrows some of its elements from A Comedy of Errors and perhaps a scene or two from Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare and Smythe find themselves in the secret service of the Queen and become key players in the foiling a plot to undermine the influence of the still fledgling Church of England and bring back the Catholic hegemony.

This story is more Smythe's than Shakespeare's, but that's fine. Will spends much of his time wrestling with improvements to the Queen's Men's play. Elizabeth Darcie gets a fair amount of time centre stage as well, which keeps Hawke from having to invent too much for Will to do.

My wife read this one as well, and found that it was a bit heavy on customs and setting, and a bit light on the story, for her taste. I found it a pleasant enough diversion, and I enjoyed the work that Hawke put into the research. I even enjoyed the chatty chapter at the end, where Sir William Worley explains everything to the young men, an old fashioned touch seldom seen in mystery books these days.