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The sleep of death is a murder mystery set in Shakespearean England; the book follows the plot of Shakespeare's Hamlet set in real-life Elizabethan England. The main character is Nicholas Revell, a player for the Lord Chamberlains men; Nick is a small time actor for the company whose main writer is one William Shakespeare. Nick is thrown out of his lodgings after an altercation with his landlady over a bedpan and has to seek alternate arrangements, when he thwarts the nefarious antics of a steward of a wealthy lady at the theatre her son asks him to lodge with them. The son also asks him to look into the seemingly peaceful death of his father, who was found dead in a hammock in his garden. However, his mother soon marries her brother in law and the similarities between the real life death and the death of Hamlets father becomes obvious.
I enjoy reading the Medieval murderers series of novels in which a distinguished British medieval murder author contributes a short novellas all with the same theme. Phillip Gooden often contributes a story featuring Nick Revell and the plays of Shakespeare in Elizabethan London, this was however, the first novel I'd read with Nick on his own so to speak. However, I wasn't disappointed the story was well thought out, the character of Nick likeable and interesting to read and the occasional use of Shakespeare as a character kept the story rolling along.
The reader knows from the very first page that there is a bit of mischief going on with the death of the gentleman in his garden but the truth is only slowly exposed. We are given all the essentials of the crime as Nick goes about questioning the servants, family members and others who were associated with the murdered man. There are further murders and soon Nick's life is in peril, however, we come to a fitting and well-constructed conclusion. The murderer is revealed and the characters of Nick, Shakespeare have been introduced to the reader.
I've always enjoyed medieval murder novels, the setting of an investigation in times well before any kind of analysis tools often leads to decent interesting stories about the times the people live in. The chance to spin a story around the writing of one of the most famous works of English literature ever was a fun bit of reading, we all know the story of the play and know how it pans out however the novel both does and doesn't follow the play in detail. Clever writing and clever use of real people like Shakespeare, Burbage, and the other members of the Chamberlains men all give a sense of realism as does the use of the play at the finale. All in all, a very enjoyable romp through Shakespeare's world and I will look forward to reading the next in the series.
Having previously read a couple of the Medieval Murderers anthologies, the novellas written by Philip Gooden and featuring his Elizabethan actor/sleuth, Nick Revill were the ones which grabbed my attention the most. 'Sleep of Death' is the first in a series of historical mysteries featuring Nick who in this first tale is introduced as a young aspiring actor, fairly recently arrived in London to seek his fame and fortune and purely by chance he stumbles into temporary employment in Southwark at the Globe Theatre with the Chamberlain's Men managed by Richard Burbage. After a rather unpleasant incident involving a chamber pot which results in him being made homeless, Nick is offered lodgings by a rather dour youth, William Eliot, whose father has just died and his mother has remarried his uncle, Sir Thomas.
Being in the acting profession, Nick is immediately struck by the similarity of the circumstances surrounding young William's father with those of the recently performed tragedy about Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, and just as in that play, it has also occurred to his would-be landlord and Nick is requested to investigate whether there is something more sinister connected to the recent death and very hasty remarriage. It doesn't take Nick long to unearth evidence which not only confirms the suspected foul play but rather more unexpectedly, the finger of suspicion is pointing towards one of Nick's colleagues, the company's playwright, Mr William Shakespeare.
This book is laid out very much in the manner of a play with a prologue, five acts and an epilogue. Apart from the prologue, which deals with the murder and is written in a very beautiful and lyrical way which belies the unpleasantness of the deed and the victim's final moments, the story is told in the first person and the reader therefore experiences everything from Nick's point of view.
This may be a murder mystery but Philip Gooden tells it with a very light touch yet without ever losing the sense of time and place. As with most historical mysteries, the crimes never seem quite as horrible as with a contemporary crime novel but the story is fast moving and entertaining and certainly kept me turning the pages.
What I really enjoyed about this book is that alongside a darn good story it's possible to pick up all the little bits of historical trivia which go towards creating a realistic backdrop to the tale and with descriptions of Elizabethan life which are so vivid in places that one can almost smell the foetid stink of the Thames and of the people for that matter. Philip Gooden also writes non-fiction books, mainly about language, so it comes as no surprise that there is a good deal of sixteenth century language included in the narrative, some of it quite blue in places and which, again, adds realism. I can't say I have any kind of expert knowledge of the late Tudor period but it certainly comes across as being authentic.
The story is told in a lively way, befitting a young Elizabethan man-about-town though one, it has to be said, who still has a slightly rural naivety about him which is very appealing. Nick is a man of his time and he comes with all the attendant baggage of the late sixteenth century including a less fastidious attitude towards his surroundings and the cleanliness of his fellow men and women, including prostitutes. At the beginning of the tale, Nick quite happily indulges in some dalliance with Nell from the brothel next door, though unlike her other clients, he gets a freebie, and only wonders fleetingly how many clients she's entertained before him! To balance out the more unpalatable aspects of our ancestors, the author has granted Nick one or two rather more twenty-first century attributes, however, which allows the reader to more easily empathise with him. He's young, charming and a bit of a chancer but at his heart, Nick is a decent man, keen to make his way in the teeming Elizabethan streets of London and in particular in his chosen profession.
All the supporting players in this novel are well rounded and believably Shakespearean. The Bard himself even makes several appearances in the story but the author rather cleverly leaves him very much as the enigma that he still remains to this day and I finished the book knowing little more about our greatest playwright than I did at the beginning.
There are elements of the story, especially the more bawdy and humorous ones which wouldn't have seemed out of place in 'Shakespeare in Love' and despite the authenticity of the time and place, this occasionally gives the characterisation a lack of the same realism but overall I found this to be a well crafted mystery set in a superbly realistic period. It will definitely appeal to anyone with a love of history and crime as the two are blended well together here. I certainly enjoyed it enough to buy the second in the series as I'm keen to see how Nick develops both as an actor with the Chamberlain's Men and as an investigator. He's made a very good start.
Used copies of this can be picked up from 1p plus postage.
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