Nicholas Bracewell is the Book Holder for the Theatre Company known as Westfield's Men. What that means is that he holds the Book of all the plays they have as part of their repertoire, along with his own annotations of when and where players make their entrances and exits, props used in the play, etc.
While not a sharer (one who gets a share of the profits made by the play as opposed to someone who gets a straight wage), he is one of the most important men in the playhouse, as his job is to ensure that the play runs smoothly. To do so, he has to plot a course between the three main actors in the play. The first is Lawrence Firethorn, the leader of the company. Although Lawrence is married to his equally forceful wife Margery, he has a roving eye and is constantly looking to feather his own nest from the ladies who come to his performances. Barnaby Gill is a comedic actor full of his own importance, and disdainful of women. He prefers men, the younger the better, and although he has an agreement with the company not to fulfill his lusts with the apprentices, that is where he directs a great deal of his attention. Finally, there is Edmund Hoode, the chief playwright for the company as well as an actor. A young and handsome man, he writes best when he is in love, but is often called upon by Lawrence Firethorn to write verses that will open the hearts of young ladies for him.
But this mystery doesn't concern the main players so much as some of the minor actors. Will Fowler, one of the actors in the cast, takes Nicholas Bracewell to his lodging to meet one of his friends, Samuel Ruff. Samuel is also an actor let go by Westfield's Men's chief competitor, Banbury's Men. But when Will Fowler is killed at the Inn where they go to drink, his last request to Nicholas is to find the man who killed him and bring him to justice, which Nicholas gladly promises.
The next day, Westfield's Men are short a player, and Nicholas tells Lawrence Firethorn to let Will's friend Samuel Ruff try Will's role in his place. He placates Firethorn with a tale of Sam being let go from Banbury's men for liking Firethorn's performances better, after which the vain leader of the company is only too glad to let him try the role. When he performs well, Lawrence Firethorn hires him for the vacancy, even though Sam has talked about returning to his brother's farm now that he has lost his place on the stage.
News returns to England of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, which whips the country into a fire of patriotic fervor, and Lawrence Firethorn comissions a thinly-veiled play about the defeat of the Armada from Edmund Hoode, called Gloriana Triumphant. Meanwhile, another playwright who sold a play to the company before tries to sell his own play of the Armada to Westfield's Men, but Lawrence doesn't like it, finding it too dull and pedestrian, which causes the man to hate the company and decide to bring it down.
When Edmund Hoode's play is accepted by Firethorn, the problem of who will play the blushing virgin Queen is addressed. Most of the apprentices are deemed to be unsuitable for the role, so the task falls to the youngest, twelve year old Richard Honeydew. This incenses the other apprentices, who feel that the role should have been theirs, and they plot to do harm to Richard so that he can be done out of the role, and one of them put in his place.
Meanwhile, Nicholas still searches for Will Fowler's killer, and he finds that Will was a staunch Catholic, but gave up the faith when he married a young woman from a farming town. This unexpected information leads Nicholas to wonder what other secrets Will Fowler could have been hiding. Could he have been playing a role in other places than the stage?
When Gloriana Triumphant is staged successfully and to the full acclaim of the crowd, the Queen hears of it and requests that the play be staged for her at court, which delights the theatre company and makes them work harder to ensure that the play be perfect for the performance. But is there a plot at work behind their request to play for the Queen? Nicholas Bracewell must steer a path carefully to ensure both the safety of the Queen and the men he works with.
This book introduces us to the company of Westfield's Men and sets up their personalities for future works. Our impressions of Lawrence Firethorn, Barnaby Gill, Edmund Hoode and Nicholas Bracewell are drawn in broad outline here, only to be enlarged and refined in this book and later books. The plot of the main mystery is both entertaining and unexpected, as well as the identity of the author of the plot.
The historical period is also well-used, drawing in not only the Spanish Armada, but also the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots, which is the prologue to the book, to set it in both time and place. If you are looking for an excellent historical mystery, this is one to look out for, with well-drawn characters and a writing style that will almost instantly draw you in to the story.