Having returned to Elizabethan London after an absence of two years, Hugh Seaton is happy to resume his old job as tailor to the company of actors known as Strange’s Men.
He is less content when he finds himself looking for a murderer, and hiding his former lover, playwright Christopher Marlowe, who is suspected of stabbing one of the players to death. Marlowe wants to resume their relationship, but Hugh has doubts about the wisdom of this, especially as he has already decided to find himself a wife and family rather than risk his soul with the dangerous and disreputable Marlowe.
To complicate matters, the young actor, Barnaby Winter, also has his sights set on Hugh and seems determined to win him. Hugh’s enquiries, together with his efforts to keep Marlowe out of the hands of the law, cause him difficulties that threaten not only the lives of both men, but also the fragile relationship between them. Hugh also finds unexpected help from Marlowe’s newest rival, a young playwright named Will, who is trying to make a name for himself in the theater world.
Seeking the truth about the murder becomes the least of Hugh’s worries, as he tries to decide where his affections lie, and in the process learns more about Marlowe than he wants to know.
Review by Erastes
This is the first published novel by the author, who I hadn’t heard of before, and I admit I picked it up with a bit of a “ho-hum” point of view. As I’ve said before on this blog, every single book I seem to read about Tudor London involves either Kit Marlowe and/or William Shakespeare – the two of them must postively hang around at the city’s gates pouncing on any newcomers. I wish sometimes someone would find something else to talk about in this era.
However, if this author had taken my wishes seriously, I would have been deprived of “Prove a Villain”, and that would be a loss indeed.
Like many others of the books–although it’s concentrated around the theatures of the day, Burbage’s Theatre and Alleyn’s Rose–the story doesn’t really focus on the acting in particular. Much of the action and character interaction takes place in the “tiring room”–where the men dressed and undressed and the costumes were kept. As you can imagine in such an unstructured and chaotic world, the tiring room is much the same–and the author really creates the bustle and panic of a busy dressing room. Much of the remainder of the action takes place in various apartments around the city (which basically consist of one room each)–and it’s this claustrophobic device which works well, giving the characters tons of time and conversation to expound their personalities and their relations to each other, and of course to advance the threories and the plot. I could really see this working so well as a play, or a film.
The relationships (and I don’t mean romantic, I simply mean the way the character interact and form friendships–or otherwise) are fascinating and endlessly moving. I couldn’t help but fall heavily for Hugh, as he’s a man with good intentions and he has a damned good heart. I love the way that he’d broken every single one of his good intentions before he’d been more than two days back in London.
Marlowe is–of course–endlessly fascinating and charismatic and fluctuates from personable and impish to being so impossible you want to throw a brick at him. Add to that a beautiful young man who plays the women’s parts, two theatre owners who have a healthy rivalry, an up and coming playwright with everything to prove, name of Shakeshaft (as Hugh mistakenly calls him), and figures much more on the fringe with intentions who may or may not be benign and you have a GREAT murder mystery.
What this book is is READABLE. I know that sounds daft, because you’d think that all books are, aren’t they? But no, they don’t always go that way, some have confusing character introductions, muddy settings, blah blah – we all know when we are thrown out of a book and find ourselves confused. But this is like a clear pool–the characterisations are knife-sharp, each character’s voice is unique and unmistakable, the descritpions of London are marvellously well done without having to bludgeon us over the head with “IT’S THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY YOU KNOW.” Every page is readable, entertaining and I for one couldn’t put the damn thing down.
Consider this a standing ovation. More please, Ms Warwick.