Bartholomew Daniels – Rotten at the Heart

bartholomewdaniels-rottenattheheartLondon, 1596. With his patron’s mysterious death leaving Will on the brink of ruin and eviction, he’s forced to fall back on his own inimitable powers of observation in order to ferret out the killer and in so doing unravel a conspiracy that goes straight to the beating heart of the court of Queen Elizabeth I.

Rooted in historical fact and written in Will’s own accessibly Elizabethan voice, Rotten at the Heart explores the intersection of religion, politics, and corruption, and underscores the sacrifices that honour demands when a troubled man finally discovers his own.

Introducing Wm. Shakespeare: Detective.

Shakespeare, the Grand Master of the English Language. While there is no shortage of historical novels featuring William Shakespeare, Rotten at the Heart is the first one I’ve read which was narrated by the Bard himself. I was wondering how Daniels (a not-so-secret pen name for Dan O’Shea) would pull it off especially as the flap text said that it was written in Will’s own Elizabethan voice. And that is always a risky thing, because how many people will be turned off by the strangeness of the language. In fact it made me think of this. And admittedly I found the book slower going than I usually read. On the other hand I loved the snippets of Shakespearean lines included in the story, not as literal quotes, but worked into the narrative in an organic way. 

The William Shakespeare we encounter in Rotten at the Heart is a sympathetic character. He’s done some less than decent things, most notably largely abandoning his family in Stratford and seducing and ruining a young London girl’s life by breaking her heart, which leads to her suicide. Yet despite all this we’re given the sense that at his core he wants to be a decent man and he knows he should do better. This is illustrated through his attempts to reconnect with his wife and by his guilt over the death of the girl and one of his apprentices who is killed trying to protect him. Will is no hero or amazingly talented with the blade, but he is a keen observer of humanity, which allows him to discern meaning and discover connections where others have missed them. Most of the leaps in reasoning Will makes are well underpinned, though at times he makes almost Sherlockian deductions, but not so much as to be an annoyance.

The mystery at the heart of the book is ostensibly a murder mystery, but quickly devolves into a more sinister and far-reaching conspiracy. Its build-up was excellently done and I really liked the fact that Daniels mixed in a secondary mystery, to do with Shakespeare’s company’s theatre lease. This second mystery is a far more economical plot and I really enjoyed this sidestep which also links up to the primary investigation of the book. Shakespeare doesn’t really have a primary sidekick, but he pulls in assistance as needed: he consults with an apothecary, a lawyer, his theatre friends, and even the Queen’s head torturer. I really enjoyed this approach and it also allows the reader to see Will interact with all walks of Tudor London life, shown in all its chaotic and pungent nature.

The writing in Rotten at the Heart is wonderful. Daniels’ use of Elizabethan language, the mixing in of lines and phrasings from Shakespeare’s plays, and his evocative descriptions of Tudor life work together to draw a vivid and exciting picture of Shakespeare’s London and bring the Bard to life. And not just the Bard, but also his companions and contemporaries, such as Richard Burbage, Philip Henslowe, Edward Alleyn, and George Carey, Baron Hunsdon are given life on the page. I really enjoyed the camaraderie of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Burbage and Will chief amongst them. The numerous lines and phrases littered throughout Shakespeare’s narrative – as he is the one to relate this tale – show a careful reading of Shakespeare’s work and they are fun to pick out. The book starts off with an introduction by Bartholomew Daniels on how he discovered Shakespeare’s journal on which the book is based. It was a device I enjoyed and it also made the whole thing gain a bit of plausibility, because how often aren’t rare manuscripts and books (re)discovered in a legacy or abandoned library? More often than we’d consider likely, I’d guess.

Rotten at the Heart is an entertaining and well-constructed historical mystery novel, one that takes a bit more work to read than a novel written in modern English, but is well worth the effort. I loved getting to know Daniels’ Shakespeare and I’m glad we’ll get to see more of him. The second Detective Shakespeare novel, A Death Owed God, will be out January of next year. In the meantime, Rotten at the Heart is a great starter of the series.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.