The Wanton Angel
Published by St. Martins Press
288 pages, 1999
by Keith Miles
Published by Walker and Company
224 pages, 1999
Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce
Keith Miles could be the modern poster boy for authorial workaholism. Over the past 11 years, he's published 20 novels, in four different historical mystery series, under his real name as well as his distinctive nom de plume, Edward Marston (or "A.E. Marston," as it appears on some British editions). Most writers couldn't hope to keep up that sort of production and maintain the high quality of their work. But Miles/Marston has certainly done so.
Two new books issued in the United States -- The Wanton Angel and Saint's Rest -- demonstrate Miles' skill at constructing engrossing plots, developing multi-layered (and often waggish) characters and larding his yarns with rich period details. While one of these works is rather more satisfying than the other, they both justify whatever expenditure the author made for midnight oil during their composition.
Ever since its introduction in The Queen's Head (1988), the impassioned but impecunious 16th-century London theater troupe known as Westfield's Men has seemed to teeter on the brink of dissolution. Yet its certifiably colorful members have managed to stay together -- sometimes against long odds -- through a series of witty and suspenseful Marston murder mysteries. As another character reminds Westfield's stage manager Nicholas Bracewell in The Wanton Angel: "You have overcome plague, Puritan attacks, disapproval by the City authorities, a fire at the Queen's Head, even the imprisonment of [company playwright] Edmund Hoode for seditious libel. Your innyard playhouse has been closed down before but it has always opened again."
However, all previous obstacles appear trifling when compared with those that Bracewell and his compatriots face in Angel, their rollicking 10th adventure.
The thespians are being threatened with eviction from their favored venue, the Queen's Head pub, after their landlord's unmarried daughter becomes pregnant -- and will say only that her child's father is an actor. Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth I's powerful Privy Council has decided to shut down the many theatrical groups, like Westfield's Men, that stage their works in the open yards of London's deliciously democratic inns. Only two formal playhouses will be left to entertain the entire city (the largest in the world at that time) -- one north and one south of the Thames River. Reportedly provoked by the belief that innyard theaters "draw people away from their work and are likely to promote violent affray," the council's decree will likely ring the final curtain down on Westfield's players.
As the actors begin to despair, an anonymous benefactress comes to their rescue, her help brokered by Sylvester Pryde, a handsome, intelligent and curiously circumspect new member of Westfield's Men. This backer promises to finance construction of a proper playhouse for Lord Westfield's actors, giving them the leverage they will need to win one of the two coveted performance permits. But no sooner have the theater's foundations been laid, than Pryde is murdered at the riverside building site.
With the Privy Council's judgment on his troupe's future pending, and with two rival theater corps plotting to rob Westfield's Men of its stars, it falls to the ever-resourceful Bracewell to figure out the identity of Pryde's killer as well as expose the secrets of his company's "angel." His failure will mean either unemployment for him and his fellows... or, perhaps worse, their attachment to a vengeful and covetous new patron.
Do you see now why I call Miles/Marston's plots "engrossing"? His Bracewell whodunits, in particular, are complex, without being quite so difficult to follow as some of the twisted medieval mysteries by Candace Robb or Susanna Gregory. Their pace fairly gallops along, with larceny tripping over lechery in well-honed Marston style. Far from being too-realistic, grim-edged examinations of life and death in Elizabethan England, the Bracewell tales burst with a robust raciness and raw deviousness that might have been appreciated by William Shakespeare, who was writing plays during the period in which these literate yarns are set.
The author offers up his prose with a modicum of period-appropriate formality, which he then juxtaposes against some very humorous episodes and dialogue to winning affect. The Bracewell books tumble with droll repartee, carrying the reader blithely from page to page. I am reminded of a scene early in The Wanton Angel that finds three members of Westfield's Men -- leading actor Lawrence Firethorn, clown Barnaby Gill and playwright Edmund Hoode -- arguing with innkeeper Alexander Marwood and his lawyer over the specifics of an agreement that would allow performances to continue at the Queen's Head:
'I will not permit any legal quibbles [said the lawyer]. My client and I spent many hours drafting this contract. It may not be rewritten to satisfy your whims.'
But what's most appealing about this series are its panoply of characters. The fair-haired and bearded Nicholas Bracewell, trained as a merchant but seasoned as a member of Francis Drake's crew on The Golden Hind, provides the calm center for a cast whose other members seek to outdo each other for eccentricity: the blustering and randy Firethorn; the conceited and contemptuous Gill, whose sly fondness for young boys is a constant source of ribald merriment; and Alexander Marwood, the congenitally miserable keeper of the Queen's Head whose paltry existence is made ever more unbearable by his harridan of a wife, Sybil. ("Big-boned and brawny, [she] had a basilisk stare which could quell the wildest of revellers and a tongue which could lash with the force of a whip.") Miles/Marston manages this unruly group with a practiced mastery.
The Wanton Angel lacks the character revelations of The Silent Woman (1994) and the stand-out boisterousness of The Roaring Boy (1995). However, its abundance of curious, criminal or downright comical episodes, coupled with some moving scenes (especially those that involve the forlornly pregnant Rose Marwood) would make this a fine introduction to the Bracewell books, if you are not already familiar with them.
Saint's Rest, the sequel to Miles' Murder in Perspective (1997), seems a tad clunky by comparison. Once again, we're in the company of Merlin Richards, a young Welsh architect who in the late 1920s forsook a promising career in his father's conventional firm to come to America and, he hoped, work with design genius Frank Lloyd Wright. Only this time, the setting is 1931 Chicago, rather than an ill-fated hotel building site in sere Arizona.
Richards is an earnest and perhaps overly honest fellow, somewhat naïve in the ways of business, but endearing nonetheless. Much like Nathan Heller in Max Allan Collins' historical private-eye series, Richards has a fine eye for the ladies, and they a fond taste for him. Yet this amateur sleuth is no match for the real thing -- as is clear by Merlin's frustratingly slow investigation of a hanging committed inside his latest architectural creation.
With America's Great Depression in full bellow, Merlin figures he's lucky to have been given a plum assignment: designing a mansion in Chicago's exclusive Oak Park suburb for meat-packing mogul Hobart St. John and his fading movie-actress wife Alicia Martinez. Sure, this commission won't give him the chance to really show his stuff, since Martinez wants the result to look like a smorgasbord of details from Hollywood's homes of the stars; and yes, his winning the right to this project has caused friction with his girlfriend, Sally Fiske, and with the senior designers in his firm, who feel they deserved the work. But to add to the skyline of Oak Park -- a place where Wright had once worked -- is an opportunity Merlin cannot pass up.
So, imagine his shock and disappointment when, on a nighttime tour of the under-construction home, he and St. John's pulchritudinous assistant, Clare Brovik, discover the body of a stranger hanging by the neck in the wine cellar. Although the local cops declare the victim a drifter and his demise a suicide, Merlin -- who is not always the quickest guy to pick up on a clue here and there -- can't help but wonder at the "drifter's" fine dress and doubt that a suicide would bother knocking himself on the head first and tying his own hands behind his back. Nosing in where he is clearly not wanted, Merlin spends the rest of the novel trying to identity the hanged man, stay clear of the business end of guns, and answer some disturbing questions about how Hobart acquired his Oak Park property in the first place... and why it was that Merlin's small firm succeeded in landing the meat-packer's architectural commission.
Usually inclined to make the most of his period atmosphere, I was surprised to see author Miles intentionally do so little with the gangsters-and-G-men environment of Prohibition-era Chicago. Maybe he thought that was too obvious a tack to take, that he should go more low-key, concentrate on humble designers and others who were hurt by the Depression, rather than fill his pages with a lot of shoot-'em-up action and walk-ons by the likes of John Dillinger or Eliot Ness. But in the absence of such larger-than-life figures, and with Merlin Richards blundering almost innocently through most of this case, Saint's Rest comes off as a bit too charming and quaint. And occasionally too obvious, especially in its unnuanced portrayal of villains.
Despite all of that, I found Saint's Rest diverting and enjoyable, if not so consistently enjoyable as Murder in Perspective, with its far larger role for Frank Lloyd Wright (who does only a cameo in Saint's) and its exotic desert setting. Both books nicely capture the impressions of a foreigner roaming America during one of its most troubled times, and this new one serves up sections of clever dialogue and does a good job of sketching out a credible conspiracy of silence. I look forward to Merlin's next outing, with the hope that Miles will grant it more of the light-heartedness and offbeat character development that have made his other series so very memorable. | September 1999
J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.
Check out J. Kingston Pierce's interview with Keith Miles.