Title: The Shakespeare Conspiracy
Author: Ted Bacino
Publisher: Author House
Buy Link Amazon:
Genre: Historical M/M, Mystery
Length: Novel 300 paperback pages
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
A Guest Review by Victor J. Banis
Summary Review: Accused of heresy, Christopher Marlowe, London’s most popular playwright, must go underground to escape prison and death. In order that his plays will continue to be produced, he and his protector, Sir Thomas Walsingham, arrange for William Shakespeare to put his name to them.
Two questions have always plagued historians:
How could Christopher Marlowe, a known spy and England’s foremost playwright, be suspiciously murdered and quickly buried in an unmarked grave — just days before he was to be tried for treason?
How could William Shakespeare replace Marlowe as England’s greatest playwright virtually overnight — when Shakespeare had never written anything before and was merely an unknown actor? Historians have noted that Bard of Stratford was better known at that time “for holding horses for the gentry while they watched plays.”
The Shakespeare Conspiracy is a historical novel that intertwines the two mysteries and then puts the pieces together to offer the only possible resolution. The novel, a wild romp through gay 16th Century Elizabethan England, is a rapidly unfolding detective narrative filled with comedy, intrigue, murder and an illicit love story. And most importantly, all recorded events, persons, dates and documents are historically accurate.
It’s a tale of murder, mayhem and manhunts in the underbelly of London as the Black Plague scourges the country and the greatest conspiracy plot of all time is hatched.
I confess, when I first sat down to read this, the somewhat ponderous title and the author’s insistence upfront on his historical accuracy led me to expect a dry and scholarly tome. It was quite a pleasant surprise, then, to discover that it is instead a thoroughly enjoyable read, a well managed blend of fiction and fact.
The author’s premise is that Shakespeare did not write the plays and sonnets history attributes to him, but rather that they were written by Christopher Marlowe, who was forced to live in seclusion and eventually flee the country to escape imprisonment and probably death for some blasphemous remarks.
I can’t say if this is so or not, and I am not enough of a scholar so far as the Elizabethan era or the works of either writer to venture an opinion, but for the most part what he says seems authentic, which is all one should ask of a work of fiction – where the semblance of truth is of far more importance than actual verity. Historical accuracy aside, the author serves up a witty and exciting tale of m/m romance between Christopher Marlowe and his patron, Sir Thomas Walsingham, though readers expecting juicy sex will be disappointed– this is indeed more romance than erotica and the romance is more talked about than demonstrated. That isn’t meant as criticism. In that regard, it’s up to a writer to go as far as he wishes in a book, but in point of fact I don’t think this one would have benefited by raising the heat level—probably the opposite.
It is Thomas’s cousin, The Royal Spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, who takes it in his head to arrest Marlowe and bring him to trial for heresy and treason. At first Marlowe is safe simply hiding out at Scadbury Manor, Sir Thomas’s estate, but that is not enough to satisfy Francis, who wants Marlowe dead, and orders Thomas to arrange it. What Thomas arranges instead is to fake Marlowe’s death. Marlowe wants his plays produced, however, and a dupe is found in Shakespeare, who agrees to having them published and produced with his name on them instead of Marlowe’s.
Throughout the ensuing years—somewhat reminiscent of Les Misérables—Francis and his Constable, Henry Maunder, pursue Marlowe’s trail relentlessly, supplying considerable suspense and keeping the pages turning.
There are typos and misspellings galore—an all too common affliction in today’s publishing and I’ve learned to turn a blind eye. The author has one major fault, however, which I cannot not mention, and it is to be devoutly hoped that he rids himself of it before his next endeavor. Like the worst of the Victorian writers (“Little did he know, dear reader…”) he intrudes with his modern day voice where he has no business popping up.
The novel, as John Gardner puts it so aptly, is a dream which the author and the reader share. As the author, your fondest hope is that the reader will forget that he is merely reading a book and will slip into the world you have presented to him. When the author accomplishes this, he holds the reader spellbound. He simply cannot put down the book.
When the author, however, stops to speak to the reader in little asides, as he does here (parenthetically) the dream is lost: “The clothing, the pose and the look on the face in the portrait did little to help determine the sex of the subject. The word on the streets of London was that Henry spent more money on clothing than the queen herself. (Centuries later when this same painting would be discovered, it would be accepted – for almost 70 years – to be the rendering of one “Lady Norman,” a rather outlandish-looking woman. The portrait was complete with rouge, lipstick, a double earring and tresses of hair flowing over the left shoulder. But, the world would one day learn: it wasn’t Lady Norman. It was Sir Henry Wriothesley.)”
The problem is, if the reader is properly engrossed in the story, it is not 70 years in the future for him, it’s the 16th century, and what the world will one day learn isn’t pertinent. This intrusion breaks the spell, reminds him that he is after all only reading a book, not living in Elizabethan England. It is a cardinal sin, and nowhere more defeating to the author’s purpose than in historical fiction.
Fortunately, it happens only a few times, three if I recall, but that is thrice too many, and the kind of mistake an author would do well to excise from his craft.
Apart from that, however, the book is an excellent read. The prose is well done, the humor sly and sparkling, the characters mostly well drawn. Of the many characters, in fact, only Sir Francis lacks dimension. He would have made for a more interesting villain if he were not so all of a piece – if, say, he’d harbored a genuine affection for his cousin Thomas, or been in love with Marlowe himself. The story’s other villain, on the other hand–Constable Maunder—is exemplary, a man of many dimensions.
I confess after years of thinking Shakespeare a man of genius, I had to work at seeing him as a not-too-bright ladies man, but the author keeps him entirely believable as such. Marlowe is a bit more problematic. The plays of Shakespeare are notable more than anything else for their incredible grasp of human nature. This Marlowe comes across as a thoughtless, spoiled brat, lacking sensitivity to others and certainly with no discernable knowledge of human behavior. He’s believable as a character in a novel, but (at least to me) not as the author of the greatest body of literature in the English language. This does not, however, detract from the story as a story. And this may be a matter of a task perhaps impossible to achieve.
Whether or not the author convinces the reader of his premise (I’ll let others decide that for themselves), he nonetheless spins an entertaining tale. I recommend the book highly for those who like literate historical fiction. But a familiarity with the (purported) Shakespearean oeuvre would be helpful in getting some of the inside jokes.