The question of who wrote Shakespeare’s plays stimulates a literary detective story, in this generally engrossing fourth from the author of the Vanished Child trilogy (A Citizen of the Country, 2000, etc.).
Narrator Joe Roper is a Northeastern University grad student (of humble Vermont origins) with a rather personal reaction to scholarship that rejects the credibility of a lowborn Shakespeare. Determined to become the Bard’s newest biographer, Joe discovers in a gaudy private collection a letter that’s seemingly the historical Shakespeare’s denial that he wrote the plays attributed to him. Both confused and reenergized, Joe hooks up with Posy Gould, a wealthy, flamboyant Harvard grad student who takes him to London, to have the letter “authenticated,” and collaborate on further researches, related travel, and—eventually—sex. Smith layers in heavily detailed historical and literary information, as both the pair’s conversations with interested parties (including Posy’s roughhewn, Damon Runyonish dad) and Joe’s intellectual meanderings consider possibilities that either “the king behind . . . Queen Elizabeth’s] throne” William Cecil or Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (a longtime prime suspect) “was” Shakespeare; revealing stylistic inconsistencies in a play traditionally attributed to journeyman scribbler Anthony Munday; and the shadowy figure of minor Elizabethan poet Fulke Greville. The story works best as a lively, often engagingly profane love song to London, the Elizabethan Age, and of course the great dramatist. Joe is a likable hero, though Posy’s a bit much—especially when she speaks Valley Girl like a native (“That is so smoking gun,” etc.). Readers uninterested in the Shakespeare authorship controversy may tune out early. But anyone who enjoyed (obvious predecessors) A.S. Byatt’s Possession or Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time will be suitably charmed—and enlightened.
Literate, polished literary entertainment.