A Review of Interred With Their Bones
The fiction that writers write lives after them; the non-fiction is oft interred with their bones.
Would it were not so with Ms. Carrell's first novel. She is the author of an outstanding piece of non-fiction: The Speckled Monster, about the 18th century battle against smallpox. She is a fine, even elegant, literary craftsman, which is why it is such a pity that she has produced this piece of silly, cozy-minded mystery fluff.
Spoiler warning: I do not intend to give away the "solution" to the "mystery," but remarks below on the plot construction, characterizations (if any), language and form of the book will undoubtedly spoil it for many. Perhaps you should stop here, read the book, and return to see if you agree.
Interred is a treasure hunt/mystery story where the bodies pile up as the peripatetic hunt proceeds, trekking from one pseudo-romantic locale to another very much a la Michael Chrichton, except where Chrichton novels are about science gone wrong, this one is about Shakespearean "scholarship" gone wrong, very wrong. If that does not seem a likely prop on which to hang a full-length novel, you are right. It isn't. Heroine Kate Stanley, director of Hamlet at the London Globe (straight from her student directorial debut at Harvard, apparently) has fled academe for the theatre. She is visited by Roz, the reigning dame of American Shakespeare studies and Kate's former Harvard mentor. Roz has found something, something big, really really big, and insists Kate pursue it wherever it leads. Before she can explain what or why, she is murdered and the Globe ante-rooms (not the Globe itself) are burnt. What could it be? There are a trail of clues...
To buttress a rather thin, inexplicably obscure and ill-motivated quest after Shakespeare's lost play Cardenio, the novel peppers its events with about every known speculation about who may have been the true author of Shakespeare's works--except, of course, for the factual explanation testified by so many of his contemporaries that it was the man himself. Where would the fun be in that? This pseudo-intellectual-cum-Dan Brownish tour rattles along somewhat confusedly with its speculative clap-trap devoid of any human feeling for the (many) deaths that occur along the way. (Don't worry, a significant number of the dead are only academics). The heroine's breathless, hair breadth escapes (she gets the wind up no less than three times by HEARING the sound of a knife pulled from its sheath at a distance!) are so much overhype, and the canons of verisimilitude we are expected to adopt to appreciate the danger she is in are completely dropped when a murder occurs and the plot veers merrily along without regard and hardly a regret for the lost life.
As a mystery, it is dull and predictable. The bad guys are just who you think they are from the first time you meet them. Cardboard killers stalk our heroine, and in the quest for the elusive Cardenio manuscript they murder six, no eight, no six people along the way whose deaths are made to mimic deaths in certain Shakespearean plays: Hamlet's father (a hypodermic behind the ear), Ophelia, Caesar, Cordelia, Polonius (really). Lavinia's death is reserved for our heroine. And so on...
Using Shakespearean murders (or deaths, at least--its a stretch, but a possible interpretation, to call the death of Ophelia murder) as a device reminds one of the rigid schemas of Agatha Christie plots like And Then There Were None or The A.B.C. Murders, except that this novel does not have a redeeming cleverness or a Poirot as mediator. Nor would Dame Agatha ever have overburdened her stories with such a pseudo-intellectual superstructure or, for that matter, deliberately shown such callous disregard for the loss of life for the sake of solving the mystery. In Christie, the deaths are the mystery, and she always makes the effort to show murder as a real human loss, whether effectively or not can be argued. In this novel the heroine nearly stumbles over bodies to get along with the solution to her all-important puzzle. As narrator she pays some slight, belated lip-service to the deaths (she shivers or shudders or whatever) but barely stops, when the crimes are committed, to pay attention. She's too busy being clever about Shakespearean antecedents. And of course,the elusive manuscript is far more important.
Is it fair to complain about lack of human feeling in an admittedly artificial mystery novel? Of course, if the author relies on a realistic fear of the heroine's death to build suspense--and she does--she should be accountable for a realistic response to death. Or at least some basic human responsibility. This uneven handling of expectations versus outcomes is one of the great flaws of the book. The characters spend more time drawing instant, aren't-we-smart Shakespearean parallels to the murders than they do considering the victims' lost lives, even though those lives are represented as minimally as they are in this book. Their existence is treated as lightly as the cast of extras blown away by Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker.
The main characters are no deeper than Chrichton characters, or Meltzer or Cussler, or many others whose gaudy jackets decorate the impulse shelves in supermarkets across America. The thing that differentiates this novel from that sea of weedy pulp is that it is concerned with "scholarly" issues having to do with the Elizabethan era and the plays of Shakespeare. Unfortunately with no more regard for truth than for human life. Perhaps the publisher envisions a DeLuxe Edition lavishly illustrated a la The DaVinci Code. Unfortunately, the only "good" scholars in this fictional world are quickly dead, and its fictional arguments are inherited by the addled, willing to entertain any authorship speculation except the one supported by facts. The authorship "controversy," as Jonathan Bate has famously said, is "to do with honoring truth." This book does not honor truth, which is its second great flaw.
Why be a curmudgeon? It's all such fun, you know: the pseudo-romantic locales, the dramatic escapes, the threats to precious Kate... Cozy fans will love it, especially if they are conspiracy theorists, but as a contribution to crime or mystery fiction it is negligible. (Cozy mysteries usually abjure violence, but the killings occur, in this book, for plot reasons, off-stage, until we get to the rather expansive ending).
Since Ms. Carrell writes well (far better than Dan Brown) it is especially painful when she opts for a lowest-common-denominator cliche to suit her cozified audience:
A rat in a trap, a blood curdling storm of noise, the Cheshire cat, worthy of a king, a palpable, malevolent thing, an eerie light, and so on... My favorite is:
If you can't hear the narrator of the Simpsons delivering these lines you haven't been paying attention the last couple of decades.
In spite of all this, I insist Ms. Carrell is an excellent writer. There are passages where her descriptions take wing. I think she is aware of the cliches, but simply opts for them to suit what she perceives as the genre, which will win her many fans, I'm certain. In addition to the cliches the prose has a tendency to turn purple, but this, again, must be a conscious decision. It goes along with the gallimaufry of mystery devices trundled into one convenient container: the treasure hunt, secret compartments, Gothic tunnels, priest holes and secret passageways, intricate, spring-loaded devices whose mechanisms work perfectly, and instantly, after 400 years, ciphers and mysterious strangers, dark shadows and disguises. This swirling vortex of mystery moves as quickly as the fleeting scenery: London, Harvard, Las Vegas, Cedar City, Utah, Shakespeare, New Mexico, Wilton House Salisbury, Stratford-upon-Avon, New Mexico again, Tucson Arizona, London, on the water,in the air, under the ground, on the Internet, on the go...
After committing an enormous number of accessory, obstructive and evidentiary crimes, there is no explanation for why the heroine is not charged by the police. It is all glossed over in the sit-com ending. The precious manuscripts end up being restored to their rightful owners, but the numerous lost lives are barely mentioned.
It is regrettable that an author with so much talent is associated with a book such as this, but, as I say, a great many people will love it, just not those serious about Shakespeare studies or mystery fiction.