Mike Ashley, editor. Shakespearean Whodunnits. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1997. ISBN 0-7867-0482-9, tp, $10.95.
Reprinted from the August 1998 issue of Mythprint (Volume 35:8, Whole No. 197).
Reviewed by Eleanor M. Farrell
This book is a collection of original mystery short stories based on the plays of William Shakespeare, from a diverse group of writers — including fantasists (Patricia A. McKillip, Tom Holt), scholars (Derek Wilson, Rosemary Aitken ), and writers of historical mysteries (Peter Tremayne, Margaret Frazer). Each writer selected one of the Bard’s plays and composed a mystery — often a murder; there are plenty of these in Shakespeare! — either inside or around the plot. Twenty-three of Shakespeare’s works (plus two stories about the playwright himself and his works) are included, from Cymbeline to The Tempest. Needless to say, the collection is a very mixed bag.
The approach which seems to work best is one in which the author expands a minor or off-stage incident in the play. Among these is Keith Taylor’s “The Banished Men,” based on Two Gentlemen of Verona, which details the adventures of Valentine among the outlaw band he joins after being banished from Milan. In the play, the robbers, finding Valentine to be a man of worth, offer him the leadership of their band at once. Taylor’s version of how Valentine wins their respect (and wealth) is much more believable, as well as being a rousing adventure tale. I also greatly enjoyed “A Villainous Company” by Susanna Gregory, which sets Hotspur’s wife Kate as detective in discovering a murderer, while offering an explanation as to why Glendower abandoned his allies at the Battle of Shrewsbury, the climax of Henry IV, Part 1.
“The Shrewd Taming of Lord Thomas” deals with the abandoned frame story of The Taming of the Shrew. Author Mary Monica Pulver postulates a fitting ending of the prank played on drunken Christopher Sly, who is made to think he is a lord. In “A Sea of Troubles,” the conspiracies and paranoia of Hamlet are expanded even further by Steve Lockley’s treatment. And last but not least, Patricia A. McKillip offers an excellent tale, “Star-Crossed,” in which the men of the Verona Watch, entreated by their Prince, puzzle out the chain of events leading to the discovery of three fresh corpses in Juliet’s tomb in Romeo and Juliet. McKillip gives these minor characters both names and complicated lives of their own as they question witnesses and dwell on their own loves and deceptions.
Other plays, with stories set after the events on stage and postulating further crimes and complications, do not fare as well as these, but lovers of Shakespeare should find this entire collection an entertaining return to the plots and characters of his well-loved works.