The question of "Who wrote all those Shakespeare plays?" has circulated for at least a couple of centuries. I vaguely recall doing a research paper on the topic back in college, well over 20 years ago. It arises because of a belief that what's known about the person of William Shakespeare - which isn't very much, other than a fairly humble background and a career as an actor - doesn't seem to jibe with the wide breadth of knowledge about subjects such as history and court life that whoever wrote the plays attributed to him would seem to require. It's a question that probably can't truly be answered, nearly four centuries later, but it's a fascinating riddle. For Shakespearean scholar and theater director Kate Stanley, principal character of Jennifer Lee Carrell's debut novel, Interred With Their Bones, it comes close to being a deadly one.
The novel shares certain elements with a very popular thriller of the last few years - a search for a lost object, an attempt to unravel a conspiracy, and dodging adversaries who want the main character stopped by any means necessary - but I don't think that comparisons would be fair to Interred With Their Bones. The controversial mystery at its heart is less wide-ranging and shocking, for one thing; but more importantly, it's just a much better book. The necessary expository scenes don't bring the narrative to a screeching halt, for one thing. It's well-written as well as well-plotted, and Carrell, a Shakespearean scholar herself, knows her subject as she blends fact and speculation. The story is suspenseful from the very start - in the way that makes you force yourself to take reading breaks and catch your breath sometimes - with twists and turns that will keep you guessing about characters' motives as well as what will befall them next, anxious about who will be next to meet a grisly Shakespearean end (it's not just a lost-item mystery and a conspiracy mystery, it's also a murder mystery), and will sometimes send you back to re-read sections. And it's smart, but not intimidating. Some familiarity with Shakespeare, and Elizabethan history, isn't necessary to enjoy it, but might help a reader appreciate it more.
I enjoy a good plot-driven novel, but it takes characters to really draw me in, and Carrell's choice to make Kate a first-person narrator is a good one, in my opinion. It increases the sense of urgency and mystery as we're right there with her the whole time. There are still things I'd like to know about her, and I hope Carrell will re-visit her in a future novel, since I'm quite sure I'll be up for reading it.