Deep in the tombs and catacombs of British history, there was our very own Da Vinci code conspiracy waiting to be unearthed. Putting aside King Arthur, the Bard was the obvious other candidate and, indeed, Rex Richards’s Shakespeare’s Truth takes fun picking up all the academic debates about the real identity of the playwright and encases them in a wider constitutional conspiracy that stretches back centuries.
The premise is that continuous debate amongst scholars on whether Shakespeare really wrote his own plays and what role Francis Bacon had in their development. Richards examines this riddle through the eyes of his main protagonist, American, Dan Knight, but adds a more dramatic twist to the story: the murder of Prince William and the kidnapping of the Queen by an ancient cult called the Rosacrucians. And what happened to the hushed-up secret of Elizabeth I’s illegitimate son?
Knight has just started working for an advertising agency in London. Little does he expect to be attacked by terrorists from an ancient sect and pursed by both MI5 and police, given the task of unravelling the truth before the clock chimes on New Year’s Eve. Otherwise, he will forfeit his own life and Her Majesty’s.
Along the way he’s helped out by cryptologist Fiona, whose own father had dedicated his life researching truth, only to be confined to a mental hospital for his violent outbursts. The mystery lays in the two words: ‘Shall Dissolve’. It’s a journey that takes them from Whitehall Court to Stratford Upon Avon and Westminster Abbey.
Shakespeare’s Truth could unfairly be compared to the phenomena of Dan Brown’s absurdly popular novels, but considering the starting blocks for Richards’s ideas, it is unavoidable. The ambition, however, is not as great, not so obviously designed as a template for a blockbuster movie. It is more intended to create an entertaining adventure yarn that is playful with its material, even to the extent of adding a teasingly apposite Shakespearean quote for each chapter heading.
His characters are drawn from familiar stereotypes but they are given enough flesh to feel credible rather than appearing simply as one-dimensional ciphers, and proving a solid skeleton to form a good cinematic or TV thriller. Encircling the whole intrigue with the extra layers of Royal family’s fate takes it into a wider fantasy realm that is more fun than treasonable, but sure to stir up controversy in certain literary circles. Not sure if it will line the shelves of the Buckingham Palace library, though.
The greater delight comes from sowing your own curiosity about those hidden Bacon references in Shakespeare’s existing heritage. Maybe your own doubts about the Bard’s work shall dissolve once you reach the end, but it’s a novel which is set to have you scrutinising statues and portraits for any hint of the truth, a mischievously enjoyable read that is unfussily told.
Shakespeare himself is probably laughing in his grave. Or is that Francis Bacon rattling his funny bones?
Shakespeare’s Truth is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.