The Slaying of the Shrew

by Simon Hawke

Published by Forge Books

240 pages, 2001


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Kill Me, Kate

Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson


Mysteries set in the world of Elizabethan theater abound, and with good reason. London of that era was a hotbed of exploration, commerce, political intrigue and artistic expression. Its foremost writers, William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, lived and died under mysterious circumstances. The exploits of their friends and patrons in the Elizabethan court were every bit as dramatic as the action seen onstage at the city's popular playhouses. Nearly 400 years later, crime fiction writers such as Faye Kellerman (The Quality of Mercy, 1989) and Patricia Finney (Firedrake's Eye, 1998) have mined this turbulent setting to produce dark, dramatic thrillers.

By contrast, Simon Hawke's mysteries draw from the Bard's comedic side. The North Carolina author, already known for his science fiction novels, casts young Shakespeare as a brilliant but neurotic desk-chair sleuth whose footwork is often done by his friend Symington "Tuck" Smythe. Critics have likened this pair to Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, but a young Woody Allen and Michael Caine also come to mind. You get the idea -- if Hawke's Shakespeare went down mean streets, he'd be looking over his shoulder frequently and carrying on an entertaining monologue about the shortcomings of the city's carriages.

Hawke's latest frolic, The Slaying of the Shrew, follows on his series' 2000 debut, A Mystery of Errors, in which Shakespeare and Smythe foiled a foreign plot to overthrow the English government. That initial case won them the patronage of Sir William Worley, an official in the Elizabethan-era forerunner of Her Majesty's Secret Service. Errors also introduced Smythe's love interest, the striking Elizabeth Darcie, daughter of an ambitious London merchant.

When Shrew opens, young Shakespeare has yet to publish a play. He ekes out a living scribbling sonnets on behalf of noble patrons and rewriting hackneyed drama for the Queen's Men to perform at James Burbage's London theater. He shares quarters with the even less successful Smythe, a stagehand for the Queen's Men who harbors delusions of becoming an actor. These dreams are even less realistic than his plans to marry the well-heeled Elizabeth.

The shrew of the title turns out to be Elizabeth's close friend, Catherine Middleton, whose status-conscious father is about to marry her off to a dimwitted, ugly but pedigreed nobleman. An ostentatious wedding celebration at the family estate is planned. The bride is to arrive by barge, dressed as Queen Cleopatra, and a play and a medieval joust will entertain the guests.

"A wedding joust," said Shakespeare. "Well, why not? 'Tis an apt metaphor for the combative state of holy matrimony. Has a decision yet been made about which play shall be performed? Perhaps the groom, as Caesar, could be stabbed to death on stage while the bride, as Cleopatra, made a complete asp of herself in front of all the wedding guests."

Shakespeare's mood becomes even more acerbic when he learns what play the Queen's Men will be performing at the event. The well-meaning but unthinking Smythe has suggested to Burbage that they present Shakespeare's new comedy about mistaken identity. Unfortunately, that play is only half written.

While Shakespeare struggles to complete his comedy in time for the wedding, it becomes clear to the reader that other characters in this story are headed for tragedy. Catherine Middleton is a shrew, all right, but in view of her forced marriage, she's a shrew with good reason. Her rants against men inspire her friend Elizabeth to find fault with poor Smythe and break off their courtship. Attempting to get back into the maiden Darcie's good graces -- and suspicious that she might have found a new love interest -- Smythe follows her around the Middleton estate on the eve of the wedding and spots her going into a garden maze at dusk. Wandering that dark maze, he fails to find Elizabeth but does overhear a chilling conversation on the other side of a hedge. Two men are plotting to impersonate noblemen with the aim of marrying a wealthy young woman and making off with her dowry. The woman in question turns out to be Catherine's younger sister, Blanche.

Smythe's accidental sleuthing -- and Shakespeare's gibes about the violent aspects of marriage -- acquire far more sinister meanings on the day of the wedding. When Cleopatra's elaborate barge arrives for the wedding festivities, Catherine refuses to rise from her bridal throne. A group of the Queen's Men rush on board to discover that she's dead. The dull groom stands twittering on the dock ("Is ... is there to be no wedding, then?"), but Smythe and Shakespeare spot a connection to the plot overheard in the maze. Blanche Middleton has suddenly become the marriageable daughter with the sizeable dowry, and an imposter is out to win her.

Shakespeare and Smythe, hurrying to Catherine's aid, find at her feet a bottle that apparently contains a poison. After conferring with their patron, Sir William Worley, who is a guest at these nuptials, Shakespeare hies back to London with the evidence of murder. There he confers with an apothecary, Granny Meg, an eerie old hag who is clearly destined to be the model for the witches in Macbeth.

What Granny Meg reveals about the potion sends Shakespeare dashing back to the Middleton estate, but he arrives too late to prevent a tragicomedy of errors that recalls -- or, rather, foreshadows -- the action in a few well-known Shakespearean dramas. To say which ones would reveal this book's ending, though not the identity of the murderer, which remains a tantalizing mystery right up to the final pages.

While this Shrew is a light read, it's hardly a trifle. Hawke spices his story with allusions to the Bard's works that will delight and impress readers of Shakespeare without sending everyone else running for the reference books. The "comedy about mistaken identity" that was to have been Shakespeare's debut at the Middleton wedding sounds very much like what is believed to have been his first performed play, Two Gentlemen of Verona. The Taming of the Shrew was his second published play -- inspired, Hawke suggests, by the Middleton wedding fiasco.

"Perhaps you can write a play about what happened here," said Worley, with a smile. "'Twould be a tragedy, of course. Quite worthy of the Greeks, I should think. Murder, greed, imposture, lust and madness, dead bodies strewn everywhere about ...."

"Been done," said Smythe.

"Still," said Shakespeare, scratching his chin thoughtfully, "'tis an idea ..." --   | January 2002


Karen G. Anderson is a contributing editor of January Magazine.