Once more into the breech with quirky historical fiction: della Quercia (The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy, 2014) turns the Gunpowder Plot into a stage for Will Shakespeare to assume the role of a 17th-century James Bond.
The premise is simple: Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe are drawn into Guy Fawkes' revolutionary schemes. With Spanish-English-Ottoman conspiracies and Roman Catholic attempts to subvert Protestant expansionism, brilliant young Marlowe becomes the Venetian eyes and ears of Sir Thomas Walsingham, the realm’s spymaster. In London, Guy Fawkes persuades—threatens?—Will into writing a special play. Opening night will ignite a rebellious spark when Double, double, toile and trouble is declaimed, a line somehow related to "cunning folk" (Celtic witches) Fawkes’ conspirators have recruited into their rebellious plot. Loyal Will informs Walsingham, who dispatches him to Sir Francis Bacon, irascible genius chief of the Ordnance Office. The narrative is dotted with footnotes identifying historical gems—for example, the way Venice was a refuge for Europe’s persecuted Jews. But it’s the characters, real and imagined, who race into memory—Will, wily and loyal; Marlowe, courageous and hedonistic; Bianca, the Dark Lady, peasant-born Jewish converso–turned-nun, then spy and assassin, then Shakespeare’s lover. Della Quercia beautifully describes a plague-riven London ripe with "horses, hagglers, beggars, thieves, prostitutes, clowns, jugglers, jargon, gossip, and swearing" and the sorcerer’s dark lair in Warkwickshire’s Forest of Arden. Full of puns—"Bless my sole "—and wordplay—"woad warriors"—this historical thriller is also an homage to Ian Fleming’s James Bond–ian world: Will becomes a "Double OO operative" and reports to Sir Thomas Walsingham, who's known as "W" and has a secretary named Penny, who fancies the agent.
Add bull-baiting, human sacrifice, gruesome executions, and an epic London street battle, and what results is an erudite tour de force.