Crimson Rose by M J Trow
Crimson Rose by M J Trow (Severn House, 2013) is the fifth in the current series featuring Kit Marlowe as a detective. This is paralleling Mark Chadbourne’s slightly different take on the playwright as a spy in a supernatural version of Britain (see The Scar-Crow Men), and following in the footsteps of Ged Parsons who wrote four Christopher Marlowe Mysteries which were broadcast on BBC Radio in December, 1993. Not to put too fine a point on it, there’s something rather attractive about purloining an historical character who both had a reputation as a rather clever individual and probably also spied for the then English government. If an author is determined to appropriate someone from the real world, it’s a big step forward to pick someone a little exceptional.
In this book, we have a double appropriation. Kit is about to launch Tamburlaine, part 2 (they didn’t do trilogies in those days) and, to show magnanimity to potential rivals, one Williams Shakespeare is recruited as an actor. It’s his responsibility in a pivotal scene to take up an arquebus and excite the audience with the uncertainty of whether he can actually get it to fire. Exactly as rehearsed, he hits his mark on the stage, the gun is fired, and a woman falls dead in the audience, a bullet hole in her neck. This is something of a surprise to all in the audience and completely devastating to Shakespeare who finds himself thrown in jail along with the arquebus — in those days, any object causing the death of a human was forfeited as a gift to God. Actually the history of the deodand is fascinating, particularly when the railways arrive with the possibility of mass casualties. For reasons that escape me, the arquebus given to Shakespeare to use on stage actually contained a bullet. Even in those uncivilised times, I suspect that was too dangerous a level of realism to bring to the stage. What if the playwright-in-making had inadvertently shot one of the cast?
As we read through this book there are some terrific anecdotes and just enough detail to a establish the context for the action but, at best, the characterisation is sketchy. We meet quite a lot of people but there’s little or no background supplied. It’s all in the moment as we’re expected to fill in the stereotypes as moneylender, corrupt official and so on. I’m not against this in principle. Some authors make the plot the dominant feature in their work and leave the rest of the work to the readers. Indeed, even a luminary such as Agatha Christie was occasionally guilty of this, churning out some mechanical plots and moving named characters around until the right result came out. But Crimson Rose is thin as historical fiction and saved only by quite a pleasing sense of humour, a jealous spat between playwrights as a subplot, and an ingenious murder plot given the level of technology available to the Elizabethans. Like many methods for murder, this depends on circumstances singularly unlikely in the real world, but it’s a clever idea and the result makes for an interesting puzzle to solve. Indeed, it all fits together like a snaphaunce, plus the chance to work “fifty shades of grey” into the plot to show current awareness. Given there are several jokes about codpieces and Shakespeare sleeps safely with his landlady’s sister, there might be a case made to describe this as a rollicking good late-mediaeval read. Except that might not quite be the right designation of era and there’s absolutely nothing explicit about the book. It just chugs happily along, crossing off the suspects as we go until there’s really only one person left (or possibly two). The motive for all the fatal excitement is pleasingly a necessary feature the time and would happily make the basis of a play (or two). We even get a veiled reference to a bear in hot pursuit stage left. Put all this together and Crimson Rose is great fun with a nicely constructed plot to paper over the slightly thin historical detail.
For a review of another book by M J Trow, see Traitor’s Storm.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.