Mask of Night: A Shakespearean Murder Mystery

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9780786713127: Mask of Night: A Shakespearean Murder Mystery

Elizabeth I approaches the end of her illustrious reign, the plague is raging in London, and the Privy Council has ordered the theaters closed. Still, author Philip Gooden's fifth novel in the popular Shakespearean series brings us a great mystery as actor-sleuth Nick Revill and the Chamberlain’s Men travel to Oxford, where a local physician, Dr. Hugh Fern, has commissioned a private performance of Romeo and Juliet. While Fern’s motive is obscure—an attempt to reconcile two feuding families to the prospect of a marriage, perhaps; or maybe simply a ploy to get himself a role in the production—his fate is not. Indeed, he is decidedly dead, when his body is discovered during a performance at the Golden Cross Inn. No matter that the deceased lies inside a locked room or that the pestilence has followed the Chamberlain troupe from London, Revill is convinced Fern has not succumbed to natural causes. Nor is Fern’s death the only one that rouses Revill’s suspicions. The mysteries multiply as a strange band of men in cowls patrols the town at night, a simple carter meets a baffling end, and a corpse changes its shoes.

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Review:

No good idea ever goes unimitated. Thus, recent years have introduced several mystery series built around disaster-bedeviled Elizabethan theater troupes. The most consistently entertaining of these may be Edward Marston's stories about Westfield's Men and resourceful stage manager Nicholas Bracewell (The Vagabond Clown), but in close competition is Simon Hawke's series starring a young William Shakespeare and his friend Symington "Tuck" Smythe III as amateur sleuths (The Merchant of Vengeance). The Bard does a turn too in Philip Gooden’s Mask of Night, the fifth lighthearted puzzler to feature actor-cum-detective Nick Revill.

With London bracing for twin tragedies--the imminent death of Queen Elizabeth I and the spread of bubonic plague--Revill and his fellow members of Chamberlain's Men hie off in 1603 to Oxford. There they are to perform Romeo and Juliet for the benefit of two feud-prone families about to be linked through marriage. But the pestilence follows these performers west, making them less than welcome in the college town, and what joy should have arisen from the nuptials of William Sadler and Sarah Constant is soured by the locked-room knifing of a local doctor and aspiring thespian, who had commissioned the company's Oxford appearance. As he did in The Pale Companion and Alms for Oblivion, Revill--already alert to a poisoning threat against the bride, wary of Shakespeare's evident dalliance with a tavern keeper's striking spouse, and spooked by the crepuscular roamings of men attired as giant black birds--must do his unheroic best to separate happenstance from homicide. This will require figuring out not only how a corpse changed his shoes, but what relationship the perishing of a formidable old nurse has to do with "naughty men’s cherries."

British author Gooden has some trouble here keeping all of his plot lines lively; one, concerning Sarah Constant's envious cousin, is particularly disappointing for how much it promises but how little it delivers. Yet Mask of Night nimbly captures the societal arcana of 17th-century England, with its con men profiting from faked sicknesses and physicians fusing science with superstition. Endowed of circuitous intrigues and a perspicacious protagonist, this novel is--to quote the Bard himself--"as merry as the day is long." --J. Kingston Pierce

From Booklist:

*Starred Review* Gooden may be the best history-mystery writer going. He deftly mixes acts of God with the artistic efforts of men in his series starring a poor player in Shakespeare's acting company, the Chamberlain's Men. In the fifth Nick Revill mystery, the plague, Queen Elizabeth's declining health, the approach of Lent, and a rift between two noble families all serve to prompt the Chamberlain's Men to hotfoot it out of London and set up temporary shop in Oxford. There the players are to perform Shakespeare's crowd-pleaser Romeo and Juliet at the request of the Bard's old friend, who is trying to avert bloodshed between feuding families. But portents of doom abound: the plague appears on the outskirts of Oxford, a young woman belonging to the rival families asks Revill to watch for signs of poisoning in her sister, and men wearing demonic-looking masks crowd the night streets. When Shakespeare's friend is found dead in a locked backstage room on opening night, the mystery moves into high gear. Revill is a steadily developing, complex character who functions both as a commentator on the times and a guide to the intricacies of performing at the Globe and on the road. Bard buffs will appreciate his insider savvy, but there is much to enjoy here even for readers who don't know a quarto from a folio. Marvelous. Connie Fletcher
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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