Palo Alto: Perseverance Press, 2015. $15.95 

Tony Hays was a journalist, a linguist, a teacher, and a writer of historical mysteries, amongst other things. Given all the things he did, ‘tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor’ comes to mind. Certainly, he was an author of eclectic interests--as evinced by his award-winning Arthurian mystery series and by his last book, a Jacobean mystery reaching into the court of James I of England. Unfortunately, Tony Hays died suddenly and unexpectedly in Egypt whilst on vacation.

O, but they say the tongues of dying men

Enforce attention like deep harmony:

Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in pain,

For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.

(RICHARD II: II, i, 687-90)

As John of Gaunt said to Edmund of Langley, so said Will Shakespeare to Simon Sadler, Constable of the Corporation (ruling body) of Stratford-upon-Avon. As a judicial officer, Sadler is the correct person to hear a charge of murder. Will Shakespeare claims he’s been poisoned. Sadler, however, is the wrong man to believe it. Shakespeare, his closest and oldest friend, betrayed him in the most intimate fashion--bedding Sadler’s wife, Peg. Sadler has neither forgotten the friendship nor forgiven the knife in the back; grudgingly, he begins to look into the matter. When evidence turns up vindicating Shakespeare’s belief, Sadler decides he owes his late friend his labor in seeing justice done. 

When he receives official permission to pursue his inquiries in London, a cesspit for which Sadler has no love, he receives his first warning to leave the case alone and for certain to leave the nobles out of it. Such warnings Sadler fails to heed, yet continues to hear once he reaches London--everyone from Richard Burbage, to Henry Wriothesley (rhymes with grizzly), earl of Southampton, to Frances, Lady Somerset tells him to leave it be, to let Shakespeare stay dead. As the warnings, verbal and physical mount, Sadler finds more determination, rather too much like a Jacobean Philip Marlowe. Eventually, his investigation merges with that of Sir Edward Coke, Lord Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench, and Sir Francis Bacon, Attorney General, into the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury. The chief suspects already reside in the Tower of London, but more evidence is needed to convict them of the murder by poison. Sadler shows considerable ingenuity in persuading people to tell him the truth and in retrieving evidence, but such cleverness serves him ill, forcing upon him a spell in the Tower. It’s not so infamous as it became during the reign of Henry VIII, but it is a fearsome place nonetheless. Sadler rightly fears he shall never leave it.

The forceful plot has many twists and turns with some moments of clever insight and brazen behavior on Sadler’s part. Talking to the Earl of Suffolk in his study whilst an accomplice steals a packet of letters requires courage and a willingness to bluff on Sadler’s part. He’s not lacking either trait, having served in the Low Countries toward the end of Elizabeth’s reign. That service also provides him with a well-honed sense of self-preservation. Through his tribulations, he finds friendship to be the most enduring form of love. That he finds the way to forgive Shakespeare, Peg, and himself says much about Sadler as a man. He is a protagonist worthy of a reader’s loyalty.

Far too often these days, readers and reviewers alike find themselves wishing novels were fifty to a hundred pages shorter. That is not the issue here--far from it, in fact. The relentless, breakneck pace of the tightly plotted story leaves me wishing for more. It leaves me wishing Hays had slowed his pace in place to let the story, like a red wine, breathe. Whilst there is never a dull moment, the loss to context and characterization costs the novel both historical flavor and understanding.

Because of the narrative speed, the relationships between and amongst the other characters as well as to William Shakespeare are not fully rounded. Sadler’s disdain and dismissal of the key fact of the Elizabethan and Jacobean court--patronage--as little more than corruption further shuts the door to more than cursory understanding both of the characters and the world they inhabit. 

With patronage, “What's past is prologue” (THE TEMPEST, II, i, 253), for it created the “”connexion”” amongst persons.  It was the glue that held people together in faction as they sought to influence the monarch’s decisions. Access to the monarch meant prestige, power, and promotion. Intimacy, of all kinds, afforded power today, but maybe not tomorrow. Loss of intimacy, of access, led people to do desperate, foolish things, like Robert Devereux, earl of Essex or Sir Thomas Overbury. One ended in execution; the other, murder. We, the readers, never become truly intimate with the characters, so we don’t feel the venom and hatred the characters have for each other. Their fangs are rather pulled; their poison, drawn.

Whilst religion and thwarted political and personal ambition can make for powerful reasons for murder, here religion remains a purely personal, local issue. On one hand, this makes sense because Simon Sadler isn’t much of a believer. Between his soldiering and the heated discussions on religion during the “stability” of Elizabeth’s reign, Sadler’s weariness is well taken. (The godly, a better term than Puritan, saw James’s accession as an opportunity for further reformation, but the king would have none of it.) On the other hand, the speed of the narrative leaves an important aspect of life glossed over and renders at least one character little more than a a caricature of a Puritan. Simon Sadler despises Anne Shakespeare as humorless, joyless, and self-righteous; she’s a religious harridan who poisoned Shakespeare’s life, figuratively if not literally. Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna and son-in-law, John Hall, are of the godly, but Shakespeare’s own beliefs are avoided, even as he’s buried from the parish church. Aside from a cameo appearance by Lancelot Andrewes, bishop of Ely, all mention of religion disappears once Sadler gets to London. Given Sadler’s view of London--a putrid, stinking, sink of iniquity--this is not a surprise.

Tony Hays never goes beyond what is known about William Shakespeare. I applaud his decision to avoid speculation over Shakespeare’s religion (crypto-Catholicism, a potentially damaging charge at the time, and hotly disputed today). I agree wholeheartedly with his determination to proceed from the idea Shakespeare wrote the plays. Such speculation in either case would not have served Simon Sadler’s story at all. It’s a pity there shan’t be another Sadler adventure, wherein the constable could truly come out of Shakespeare’s shadow.

 Copyright KG Whitehurst