Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Mad Courtesan by Edward Marston

When Sebastian Carrick, an actor in Westfield's Men, dies in an alley outside a brothel, he fails to show up for a play for the first time in living memory. On finding out about his demise, Nicholas must bear the news to Sebastian's father, who asks him to track down the murderer, and tells him about possible chicanery in the government, which he will investigate himself, despite being imprisoned in the Tower because he helped one of Queen Elizabeth's handmaids marry, which inspired the Queen's wrath.

Now the Queen herself is supposedly ill, and all the men of her court are worried as to the choice of who will succeed her. Certainly, she has withdrawn from all contact with her court, and will not come out of her rooms. She has even stopped conducting the country's business, which leads many to conclude she is likely on her deathbed.

Now that Sebastian Carrick is dead, Owen Elias steps into his roles, which doesn't please Master Larence Firethorn, the head of the company. Owen Elias' style of acting comes rather too close to the same style employed by Firethorn, and suspicion has fallen on Owen as the killer of Sebastian Carrick because the two quarreled about money, and Sebastian was always getting the better roles than Owen Elias.

But when Edmund Hoode's latest play is taken into the playhouse and Owen Elias distinguishes himself in the part written for him, it raises Lawrence Firethorn's ire that Owen's performance raises a response from a woman in the audience that Firethorn had an eye on. After a few performances of the play where Owen deliberately disobeys Firethorn and adds the missing dialogue back into the play, Firethorn fires him, leaving him disconsolate.

Firethorn, meanwhile, is too busy in pursuit of the Lady Beatrice Capaldi to care. With his wife gone to Oxford to help her sister through the birth of her new child, hs is free to spread his lechery anywhere he likes. And right now he wants Beatrice Capaldi, enough to remove any obstacle he sees as standing between himself and the fair lady. But will he go to the length of angering his patron as well as his fellow players, by leaving the stage to be with the lady instead of doing his job?

Owen Elias, meanwhile, has been offered a job with the Rivals of Westfield's Mean, Banbury's men. Not only has he been offered a job, but he has been further offered the post of a sharer, who would have a share of the profits from every play. Banbury's men hired him precisely because his style is so close to Lawrence Firethorn's, and he mimics his former employer every time Banbury's Men put on the play "The Spanish Jew", which they have further "improved" so that it not-so-subtly blames the Queen's Jewish Doctor for her illness, perhaps even to the step of poisoning her.

Another assault on Westfield's men is the arrival of Nimbus, a curiously intelligent horse who has gained favor with the landlord of the Inn where they ply their trade. Alexander Marwood would rather have Nimbus be the star of the attraction at the Inn than the players, and he is quick to tell Nicholas Bracewell so. Nicholas is worried, because Marwood seems sincere in his desire to get rid of the players. Can Nicholas discredit the stallion in some way to forestall the loss of the players only true home?

At last, the stage is set to bring all the miscreants to justice, but Nicholas will have to pull off a near-miracle to make sure it all ends well. Luckily, he works at the theatre, where miracles are a stock in trade.

This was another excellent mystery set in the Elizabethan era, on and in the Elizabethan stages. The level of depth and knowledge of the acting companies back then shines from every page, and the familliar characters come to life in bold, vivid strokes. Marston never fails, and this book is no exception. Despite a twisty plot, it will hold readers to every page as the story unfolds. Each separate thread makes up a wonderful whole that both delights and amuses, as any good Elizabethan play promised.

Very well done, and the author is as much a stage magician as his character.

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