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Onyx reviews: Interred With Their Bones by Jennifer Lee Carrell

It would be interesting to know whether there were discussions in the marketing department at Dutton about whether or not to title Jennifer Lee Carrell's first book The Shakespeare Code. If so, cooler heads prevailed, and the book was published as Interred With Their Bones, a quote from Shakespeare. However, there can be no doubt where Carrell's inspiration came from and what book was her model.

There are more than a few noteworthy similarities between Carrell's fiction debut and Dan Brown's megathriller. The protagonist is a woman instead of a man. The subject of her quest is a playwright instead of a painter/scientist. The writing is more literary than thriller—more in the style of The Historian than The Da Vinci Code.

It seems a promising premise. The new Globe Theater in London burns on the anniversary of the fire that consumed its namesake nearly four centuries earlier. However, in the 2004 fire, a Shakespeare scholar who has just promised to let her estranged friend Kate Stanley in on a mystery, dies. Not from the fire, as it turns out, but from poison, administered in a decidedly Shakespearean manner.

At the time of the fire, Kate is directing a renowned classical actor in Hamlet at the Globe, the opportunity of a lifetime. She is also a Shakespeare scholar, the author of a thesis on the subject of the occult Shakespeare, which she always hastens to explain means the study of hidden messages in the plays and poems, not pertaining to the supernatural.

The moment the fire breaks out, Kate's life is upended. She races from one clue to the next with someone in hot pursuit—from London to Washington, to Westminster Abbey and Shakespeare's grave in Stratford upon Avon, down to Spain and eventually to Utah. Just about everywhere she goes, someone ends up dead. Anyone familiar with The Da Vinci Code should have fairly strong suspicions about who the bad guys are.

Kate is a sympathetic heroine, though she seems oddly untouched by the mayhem going on around her. She has previous personal or professional relationships with some of the victims, but isn't incapacitated by these losses. She's also ferociously determined about not giving up her quest, even though it seems certain others will die if she continues. The secondary characters are less well drawn, a situation complicated by the fact that each of them must be portrayed as a potential suspect at some point during the story.

The ultimate goal of Kate's quest is the lost manuscript of Shakespeare's last play, The History of Cardenio. The play, supposedly inspired by the story of Cardenio from Don Quixote, was performed once or twice in the bard's time and then vanished from sight, except for a fourth-rate eighteenth-century adaptation. Evidence indicates that the manuscript was last seen in the most unlikely of places—the American West.

Threaded through the pursuit is a running debate over Shakespeare's identity. How did an unassuming man tap into such power, over and over again? Where did he gain access to the classic stories that inspired him? Outside of a few very basic details, very little is really known about the man credited with writing the most famous plays in English literary history. The seven years before he emerged on the scene as a successful actor, director and playwright are known as his "lost years." Even his birth date is based on an eighteenth-century historian's error. Beyond his literary output, virtually no documents from or to the author exist. The book is constructed, of course, in five acts, with intervening sections set in Shakespeare's time. These brief interludes serve to add a real-life perspective to the obscure details of the time.

There are numerous theories about who really wrote the plays, sonnets and poems attribute to the Bard of Avon, some supported by the historical record, some firmly held by ardent believers despite strong evidence to the contrary. Did Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, the Earl of Oxford, or Queen Elizabeth or some chimerical combination of several people collude to carry out one of the great literary frauds of all time? Some of Kate's adversaries fear their pet theories will be imperiled by her discoveries.

Carrell goes to heroic lengths to keep the Shakespeare motif going. Each murder is modeled after a scene out of one of the plays. It's a nice literary conceit but highly improbable. It's hard to imagine a ruthless killer risking detection when killing someone on the spur of the moment.

Kate's path leads her from one Shakespeare expert to the next, from one original folio of the plays to another. Whenever Kate is in a tight spot, Carrell conjures up a deus ex machina escape. Tunnels and hidden passages materialize in the most unlikely places.

After a while, the author seems unable to keep up the fast pace she's trying to emulate, and it begins to feel like she's simply putting her characters through the paces. Important clues are hidden or misinterpreted to manipulate tension. Ultimately the book is a disappointment because the concept seems like it had so much potential, and the first 150 pages are compelling.

As she reveals in her afterward, many of the details, theories and inspirations Carrell uses are real. This makes the book worthwhile for anyone interested in learning more about one of the great literary minds who ever existed—or whoever it was that created the plays that form that backbone of our literary canon. Just don't expect to be kept at the edge of your seat.

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