January 7th, 2014

Cry Murder! in a Small Voice, by Greer Gilman

I had some problems with Greer Gilman's Cry Murder! in a Small Voice, but I would have put it on my Best of the Year list anyway if I'd read it in 2013.  And I'm going to put it on the list in 2014, because, hey, it's my list.  And despite the book's problems, I loved it a whole lot.

It's 1604.  Someone has killed young Peter Whitgift, a boy actor, and detective Ben Jonson is on the case.  He talks to Rafe Calder, another boy and Peter's lover, and to Robert Armin, a fool in Shakespeare's company, who points him in the direction of Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.  (Somewhere, reading this, one of those loony Oxfordians who think that de Vere wrote Shakespeare's plays is hurling imprecations into the night.)  He also tells Jonson that Oxford brought a singing boy back from Venice and that the boy escaped, and Jonson goes to Venice in search of him.

Gilman perfectly conjures up the London atmosphere of the time, the actors and playwrights, gossips and noblemen.  Rafe is a terrific character, and her portrait of Jonson is first-rate.  And I liked the slow unfolding of the story, as the full range of Oxford's villainy becomes apparent.

Most of all, though, I love Gilman's style.  Yes, it's complex, but in the way that a Celtic knot or a lute rose is complex, beautiful and intricate.  For people who get drunk on prose, Gilman's writing is the finest wine available.  Here's a description of Rafe's room, with paper puppets hanging from the ceiling:

"From the rafters, bright-leaved as a wood in fall, unfallen, hung a company of players, masque and anti-masque… Some cut from ballad sheets; some drawn by a childish hand; all painted: knights, gods, shepherds, witches; bears and dragons, Mab and Merlin and the rapt Prosperina.  Fantastical, this meddled work -- aye, Willfully -- to graft such hedgerow Englishry on ancient stock, imp out the laurel with the hawtree."

And a portrait of Robin Armin: "A gill to Ben's quart pot: his slight quick tumbler's body in a mole-gray scholar's gown, mischief as justice.  He'd an ill-matched face -- a fortune in a fool -- two faces in one coin, like moon and dark of moon.  Himself his guising.  He'd a trick of turning, overturning what you saw in him.  Now mirth, now melancholy: child; confessor; lunatic."

Above all, this is a story of transitions, of the place between life and death, masks and faces, child and adult, male and female.  It repays several readings, and each reading brings something new.  I don't think I understood all of it, even now.

The potential reader should be warned, though, that some knowledge of Elizabethan and Jacobean England is required, that, for example, it helps to know that Oxford was alleged to have farted before Queen Elizabeth, and that he then (allegedly) left England, traveling extensively in the hopes that she would forget the incident ever happened.  Well, Gilman does relate this episode, but it's in her own archaically poetic style: "Ah, 'twas then his lordship vented, bowing to the Queen: which afterward she did recall to him: My lord, I had forgot the fart."

A bigger problem, though, is the growing sense that Jonson shouldn't be the main character at all.  It's Rafe who needs to avenge himself on Oxford, and Rafe who finally takes action against him in a sensational climax.  Jonson doesn't have the emotional involvement that Rafe does; he searches for Peter's killer mostly because the dead boy reminded him of his dead son, and his only role is to discover information that Rafe could have gotten elsewhere.  After following Jonson for nearly the entire book, it's jarring to suddenly switch to Rafe's point of view.

But in the end it almost doesn't matter.  I got to spend time in Jacobean London with Ben Jonson, and with Gilman's prose.  It doesn't get much better than that.