Rejuvenation and Demise

Before I Hang (1940, directed by the to me previously unknown Nick Grindé) is almost a companion piece to a movie I wrote about earlier, The Walking Dead, and likewise situated somewhere in that gloriously indefined terrain that falls between crime, horror and science fiction. In this one Boris Karloff plays the very old and venerably white-haired doctor Garth, an altruist and humanitarian who based on his experiments with the human cellular unit is convinced that old age is a disease and humans may live well-nigh forever. He has experimented with a serum to rid the human cell of the poison that is old age, but the serum doesn't work. Not quite, not yet. Before he can perfect his formula he's sentenced to death for a mercy killing. He tried the serum on one of his dying patients. It had no effect. In the end he could watch the suffering no longer and ended the patient's life. For this he must suffer the penalty.

Dr Garth has three weeks before the sentence is carried through and he is executed.

In gaol Dr Garth gets a most peculiar proposition. The warden and the prison doctor are willing to allow him to continue with his work. For his serum he uses the blood of executed criminals and by Jove, this time it seems he gets it right. But there's no time to verify the result, the day of his execution is upon him. With less than half an hour to live, he gets the prison doctor to inject him with the serum so that his body may be studied after his death: his last gift to science. Then they shall see if it works, if it really works.

But wait, hang on - just as Dr Garth is about to step out of the laboratory gallantly to brave the gallows there's a telephone call. The governor has tweaked the sentence a bit and instead of hanging Dr Garth now faces life imprisonment. Dr Garth feels almost cheated, then the serum makes him feel a bit funny and he passes out.

He goes into a coma and when he comes to, well, dash it all, he's different. He doesn't need his spectacles for a start. That's not all. He looks younger, his hair's no longer completely white. As his colleague the prison doctor who has analysed Dr Garth's blood exclaims: "John, by every medical test you are twenty years younger than when you came here!" Blimey. Oh, and another thing. Before he went into coma he turned quite nasty and had to be subdued by three men and put in a strait-jacket.

Shortly thereafter Dr Garth is fully pardoned and may return to his studies. He's changed and not only physically. There's something eating at him, something he cannot remember - it's like a curtain or a wall and he cannot get past it. The prison doctor has been murdered and he isn't fully convinced the convict who is supposed to have done the deed is in fact guilty. There's something he must remember. But he can't.

Dr Garth throws a party for his friends at his residence. When it commences he just stands there glowering at the piano player, his face twitching. After the piece is finished the other guests rush over to the pianist gushing over his performance, telling him how he improves with every passing year and just keeps getting better and better. Dr Garth puts them in their place and cruelly tells the player they're lying and that he, the player, is an old man and that his powers rapidly decrease.

Then he tells them he's chosen them of all his friends to be the next recipients of his serum so that they may aid mankind with their crucial gifts for years to come. The guests are reluctant, the risk is simply too great. "I've had a full life," says one guest, "and after all, man is supposed to live three score and ten years." "But old age is a disease and I can cure it," exclaims Dr Garth, not quite understanding why the others are so unwilling. It baffles him. It hurts him. This is where science inevitably is going but oh so painfully slowly, while he, with one small inoculation, can add years to their lives, and do it right now, at this instant. Why are they hesitating?

The party ends on a sour note and Dr Garth storms off to his private quarters. Cut to the pianist's residence. He sits at his piano and practices but his fingers simply won't obey. Maybe Garth was right. He is getting old. Suddenly there's an ominous tap on the French windows. It's Dr Garth. He's come to persuade the pianist to take the serum. The pianist gives in. We shall do it now, Dr Garth says and reaches for his black bag which he's brought with him.

Whilst mixing the serum Dr Garth seems to experience a headache. He pulls out a white handkerchief - with which he then, quite coolly, proceeds to strangle the pianist. Then, horrified at what he's done, he shies back.

The detective on the case immediately hones in on Dr Garth and wants him under surveillance. Distraught and horrified at his deed, Dr Garth pays a call to a friend. He admits it was he who killed the pianist and the prison doctor as well - and he now knows why. The serum he was inoculated with was made from the blood of a murderer and the lust for murder has tainted his own blood. He will confess his deed to the police, he will turn himself in, but not quite yet. First he wishes to inoculate his friend so he may check and verify the result scientifically. Otherwise his huge discovery will die with him and that cannot be allowed to happen. The friend hesitates. Dr Garth pulls out his handkerchief to wipe his brow. There's an alarming look in his eyes. The friend tries to call for help and Dr Garth strangles him.

Dr Garth hurries home. His daughter finds him packing. His daughter knows. He pulls out his hanky, as if to strangle her, and she passes out. The police storm his house but he's already flown the coop. He makes his way to the gaol and he's let in. He acts in a strange and threatening manner and the guard shoots him down as he keeps coming on like he was crazy. I only wanted to be hanged before I kill again, he explains to the warden and then he expires.

"In the war of science many must die before victory is won," Dr Garth's assistant declaims in the end, echoing the sentiments of Dr Garth.

Karloff again gives a splendid, inspired and graceful performance. The script, despite its many fine qualities, is severely lacking. Which eventually sinks the film. And as the movie is just a few minutes over an hour long it's a bit of a rush job anyway. And the melodrama is too much. Cheap, to put it in a word. The horror elements are few and far between, the crime plot rather bland and banal, and the science fiction slightly juvenile. Which all of it could be ignored and heartily forgiven were the script better. This one really don't hold a candle to the extremely fine The Walking Dead.

The director, by the way, isn't quite as unknown as first I surmised. He's done Million Dollar Legs with Betty Grable, Shopworn with Barbara Stanwyck and above all The Bishop Murder Case with Basil Rathbone as Philo Vance. Not too shabby. The Philo Vance books never work as films but I'd quite like to see Rathbone's performance as that epitome of American snobbery and insufferable besserwisserism.


Sherlok Kholms Revisited

The Twentieth Century Approaches is the final instalment in the excellent Russian Livanov-Solomin-Maslennikov Sherlock Holmes series. Holmes is retired and keeping his bees somewhere in the sticks (and sporting a dashing goatee), Watson lives with his wife (who, at aquick glance, seemed to me to be the former Miss Morstan) and runs a private practice. Poor Mrs. Hudson is dead and the illustrious Baker Street residence of yore has been turned into a museum for Sherlock, filled with Sherlockian memorabilia and impressive regal busts of The Great Detective. There are sheets and shrouds over everything, lending the place a somewhat funereal air. It isn't as much a museum as a shrine.

The mood is now very different. Gone are the leisurely times of yesteryear and the gentle - and genteel - unhurried pace of the Victorian age. This is a new age, this is the future. Efficiency is the key. Watson now writes his stories with a clanking typewriter. There are loud clunky telephones everywhere, the lights are electric and harsh, the mode of transport the automobile or - heavens - a motor bicycle! (I love, by the way, Watson's motoring attire: a long dark oilskin motoring coat, extremely stylized goggles and a sinister black balaclava - making him look like he's just sprung from a Tardi comic book.) This is indeed a mechanical age, and men have turned into stiff automatons: the caretaker at 221b is nearly a robot, Lestrade's successor speaks like a computer and even Mycroft Homes is now very much the epitome of modern inhumanity. Sherlock the cold calculating machine, as he was, seems now like a clumsy relic of the primitive past.

No wonder, then, the retirement. No wonder, then, the preference for bees over men.

But the retirement isn't to last. Watson motors over from the city and lays before Holmes the strange case of a patient of his, the young engineer Victor Hatherley, who most savagely has lost a digit. Holmes is off like a shot and in no time he solves the case and finds out it revolves around a counterfeiting operation. The birds, however, have flown the coop. And, by the way, highly significant fact, they spoke German amongst themselves.

Then Mycroft has a most important case for his brother. A certain highly sensitive document is gone. If it falls in the wrong hands, the Prime Minister informs Holmes, it could cost England millions of pounds and the lives of a hundred thousand men. The document has gone missing from the home of the Secretary of State, in a most mysterious fashion. There aren't many foreign operatives in London who have the clout to handle such a document. Holmes quickly narrows the list of suspects to three. And, in the morning paper, Watson simultaneously reads that one of them, a certain Eduardo Lucas, has been found stabbed to death.

Can this be a mere coincidence? I think not, exclaims Sherlock. And the pair head to the scene of the crime where they encounter Lestrade and his successor. It turns out that Eduardo Lucas and Lysander Stark are one and the same. Holmes very quickly discovers the hiding place of the letter, but finds it distressingly empty. It takes him but a brief instant to deduce where the letter is now and who has it. They hasten to the house of the Secretary of State and confront his wife. She cracks and owns up. Yes, she has the letter, Lucas was blackmailing her. When she delivered it to him his wife stormed in, made a scene, accused him of infidelity, and stabbed him. The following day, upon learning of the huge importance of the letter, she returned to Lucas's home and by means of trickery recovered the letter. Holmes places it in the dispatch box from which it was stolen and the case is closed. War is averted. End of part one.

In the beginning of part two we come upon German villainy. The dastardly von Bork has resided in England for years and is the king-pin of his country's espionage. He is the spider in the centre of the intricate web of Hunnish dirty tricks. Now he is awaiting the arrival of the new Naval signals from a traitor, an Irish-American called Altamont. It may be worth mentioning that by some curious chance von Bork seems to reside next door to Sherlock Holmes who provides him with honey from his bees.

And once again his government needs Sherlock. A clerk is dead and the plans for a revolutionary new submarine, held in his department, are missing. The signs would seem to be pointing to the spy Hugo Oberstein. Sherlock, with the aid of Watson, decides it's time for a spot of well-aimed burglary, much like in the case of the blackmailer Milverton. They confirm the suspicion: Oberstein is indeed involved. Finding out that Oberstein keeps in touch with his lackey through the personal columns they set a trap and catch the culprit. It is now time to take care of von Bork.

The Irish-American traitor Altamont delivers the new signals to von Bork - but Altamont is Holmes. It's been a trap all along! Holmes has been under cover for years and on the track of von Bork for quite a while! Even Mrs. Hudson is involved (seems like she wasn't that dead after all). Holmes and Watson foil the evil schemes of the nasty Teutonic warmongers - but even they cannot avert the coming war, only delay the inevitable. August 1914 is but a few short months away. The war will come. And with it dies the old century, for good, and what little was left of the old world.

Well, what can one say? It's quite a mix. The Twentieth Century Approaches makes use, quite freely too, of four short stories: The Engineer's Thumb, The Second Stain, The Bruce-Partington Plans and His Last Bow. The settings are once more quite lovely, even when they never remotely look English. They still manage to convey the atmosphere of Sherlockian magic very nicely indeed. There's even a house that sits right smack on top of a railway track and the trains run beneath it in a tunnel - you can't get more perfect for the Bruce-Partinton Plans even if you try. Is, by the way, the machinist in the very end the director Igor Maslennikov himself, or do I see sights?

As a whole I didn't really enjoy this episode as much as the previous ones. Why? I like spy stories, so that isn't the reason. The script took several liberties with the original stories, but not, I think, too great liberties. The whole thing was mostly pretty firmly rooted in the Canon. And lumping together the spy stories (plus Engineer's Thumb) I find justified, if not well advised. The script, however, was rather weak and there were several embarrasing blunders that destroyed the episode for me.

There are simply too many aspects of the script that do not work. The role of Lysander Stark's woman in The Engineer's Thumb works. She's an unwilling participant in the events and tries to warn off the engineer. The role of Lucas's wife in The Second Stain works. She's mad with jealousy after having discovered that her husband leads a double life in London. But you can't have the same woman do both. It makes no sense whatsoever. In the film the woman is in London to begin with. She knows her husband leads a double life and is a spy. Why should she suddenly go mad with jealousy? Second point: von Bork pays his spies with a cheque? No master spy he, let me tell you, even if the cheque is worthless. The mind boggles.

Thirdly and most importantly: Holmes has been deep under cover for years establishing a false identity in order to get close to von Bork. Yet he at once dashes off to solve cases when Watson asks him to. Wouldn't that immediately blow his cover? Especially when he gets involved in cases that directly concern von Bork? Is von Bork really that stupid and inept? Somehow I don't think it's just a matter of putting on or removing a false beard. And if Holmes is under cover (and presumably so on orders from the Government - ie. Mycroft), why the devil would Mycroft then ask him to solve less important cases and by so doing blow his cover and kiss off the really important case he's spent years on? Once you are under cover you are under cover and that's it. It really makes no sense whatsoever to surface as Holmes. It's pure madness. But once you do surface it's plain madness to go back under cover. And if he really is under cover how does Watson even know where he is? This is really bad thinking on the script-writer's part. It's such a huge lapse in logic that one cannot take the film seriously.

There's also a strong parodic element in the episode and at times it gets to be too much. It just isn't that interesting and pretty much destroys the Sherlockian atmosphere. Mycroft as a mechanic man is a funny idea but not much more than that. Ultimately it leads nowhere. And we know the war is coming. We know what it causes. Yes, war is a crime. The greatest crime. But what we're interested in is Sherlock and his cases, not the First World War (fascinating though it is).

No, I much prefer the gentle and genteel Sherlockian atmosphere of the earlier entries. And Sherlock working his criminal cases.

Somehow it completely escaped me that the first episode was in fact in two parts, the second part having a further go at the very first Sherlock story A Study in Scarlet. Now, having seen the whole, I must admit that I quite liked it - especially after The Twentieth Century Approaches. A Study in Scarlet is always difficult to dramatise with its unwieldy back-story that engulfs pretty much half of the book. Wisely they've omitted most of it. Too much perhaps? I don't know. At least it works better than in The Agra Treasure where everything was omitted and no one could understand why Jonathan Small done what he did. Here Jefferson Hope gets to explain himself and his deeds. His is of course a tragic story, he has been treated most vilely and most unjustly and we're quite saddened to see him put behind bars. As is of course Sherlock himself.

It's a good mystery and a romping yarn, is A Study in Scarlet.

I can't help it but I don't particularly care for the actor who plays Lestrade. He annoys me. I do wish the fellow who played Gregson had played Lestrade instead. He strikes me as being an intelligent and capable policeman. Lestrade is just comic relief. And not really that funny either.

Earlier I, in my infinite cleverness, bemoaned the fact that the only missing Slavic element in the series was the Samovar. So, lo and behold: in the end of the second part they do take their tea from a Samovar (or what very much looks like a Samovar), which I find only charming and appropriate.


Electric Lazarus

In Michael Curtiz's The Walking Dead (1936) Boris Karloff is a meek and gentle pianist who's spent ten years in gaol on a false charge. Upon his release crooked attorney Ricardo Cortez and his gang see the perfect patsy in him and promptly frame him - for the murder of the judge who all those years ago sentenced him. A young scientist and his bride can vouch for Karloff's innocence, for they saw the real murderers. The gang, however, scared them off and at the trial they remain silent. His defence is handled by none other than Cortez, who sees to it that he won't be acquitted.

Karloff is sent to gaol, once more for something he didn't do. This time the sentence is a bit stiffer - it's the chair for him. The day of the execution grows nearer. The scientist and his bride begin to have second doubts - can they really let an innocent man suffer? They cannot, so on the very day of the execution they go to the scientist's boss, Edmund Gwenn, and spill the beans. Gwenn contacts Karloff's lawyer who promises to get in touch with the prosecutor. But, alas and alack, Karloff's lawyer is of course the man behind the murder, and he sees to it that the governor will not be contacted in time. And when the reprieve finally arrives it is too late. The switch is pulled at the very same moment the prison authorities get word of the reprieve. Oh bitter irony!

But wait! cries Gwenn the very eminent scientist. All is not lost! he shouts, all is by no means lost! For he, like a modern Frankenstein, has been experimenting with flesh and electric currents and other quite modern and radical and impressive science thingummies. He claims to be able to reanimate Karloff. He can do it, by Jove he can! Cortez isn't best pleased.

It isn't easy - how could it be? - but in the end Gwenn and his crack team of top boffins, sporting very hi-tech gear for 1936, manage to resurrect Karloff. But, not surprisingly, he's not the same man he used to be.

Karloff has changed, oh yes, he's changed. Now he's subdued, lethargic, as if in a mild state of somnanbulism. He has trouble remembering who he is and what has happened. He limps heavily, his other hand seems useless and he's gone partially grey. On his expressive face there is this constant look of great and unrelenting sorrow. Gwenn, not perhaps in the best of scientific manners, is very keen to find out what Karloff has seen and experienced on the other side. What great secrets he could reveal - if only he remembered!

When Karloff meets Cortez he at once knows. He knows that Cortez is behind everything, he knows that Cortez is his enemy. But how can he know that? He didn't know it before - how can he know it now? Gwenn and the prosecutor throw a party and invite the entire Cortez gang. From Karloff's reactions they at once see who the guilty ones are.

One by one Karloff seeks out the guilty parties and confronts them. Why did they do it? he asks softly, merely seeking knowledge, merely seeking understanding, merely trying to find out what happened to him and why it happened. Why did they kill him? Why? The confrontations all end in the villains dying - of natural causes or in freak accidents. Karloff never lays a hand on them. Yet there is something vaguely supernatural in the accidents.

When there are only two villains left, Cortez and his boorish henchman Barton MacLane, they decide to take matters into their own hands and finish Karloff off. Karloff has sneaked out of Gwenn's house. He now spends his time at the cemetery, among the silent headstones and the tranquil dead, because that's the only place where he can find peace. The villains track him down and pump him full of lead, but while making their getaway in the heavy rain they lose the control of their car and crash straight into an electric pole and are immediately electrocuted. Oh sweet irony.

This time Karloff is in for it. Even Gwenn can't save him now, not a second time. While Karloff lies there dying, Gwenn urges him to tell everything he remembers. It's urgent. Science must know everything. And Karloff remembers. It's all very hazy but he remembers. "After the shock," he utters feebly, "I seemed to feel . . . peace . . . and . . ." - then he heaves his last sigh and is gone, this time for good. Cue violins.

A ripping movie and an extremely fascinating melange of gangster story, classic science fiction and genteel gothic horror. Curtiz's direction is especially delicious with extremely effective use of light and shadow. But what makes the movie live and breathe is obviously Karloff's beautiful acting which is so tender and gentle and sensitive that it's almost beyond belief - proving him to be a very fine actor and a true artist. The Walking Dead is also fascinating as a companion piece to Whale's Frankenstein, as Karloff is reanimated and viciously abused in both films. And while The Walking Dead is a later film it still doesn't exploit Frankenstein but rather complements it very nicely indeed.

Here's, by the way, another film that mixes gothic horror and science fiction in a most pleasing manner: Frank R. Strayer's The Vampire Bat (1933). In a small rustic village somewhere in darkest Germany people start turning up dead. They're drained of blood and have two smallish punctures in their neck. What else could it be than vampires? Well, it turns out to be this deranged scientist who needs fresh human blood for his experiments (they fairly often do, it seems), so what ho: the gothic horror movie suddenly becomes straightforward science fiction. Nice one.

But really The Walking Dead is what the doctor orders. Quite possibly Karloff's finest hour. What a performance.


The Strange Case of Miss Violet Smith

I've always particularly liked The Solitary Cyclist. It took me a good long while fully to grasp why this was the case. Like The Speckled Band it is a seminal Sherlock Holmes story, indeed an essential one. Essential in the sense that in it we perceive quite clearly the essence of Sherlock's quest. To come to the aid of a damsel in distress, yes, but it isn't quite as straightforward as that. What Sherlock defends, in almost every single story in the Canon, is Family.

To Doyle family is the prime unit of socity, that which above all cannot be tampered with. Therefore every crime that is aimed at family is especially heinous. Very rarely in the Canon are there simple capers, jewel heists, gold robberies - things that are standard fare in crime fiction. No, that would be too simple, too childish. Doyle is far shrewder than that. Even when there are robberies there always are underlying reasons, most often pertaining to a familial situation of some kind. And that is precisely why his stories live and have such an exceptionally wide following, and such an immense impact on the reader: because the emotional and psychological core of the stories strikes a nerve with every reader. Probably a subconscious nerve but a nerve nevertheless. Because every crime concerns family, it concerns us personally. Crimes of that sort are never abstract or theoretical. They could happen anywhere in the world. In any period of time. To any one of us. They are international, timeless and ubiquitous.

The heart of family is the sacred bond of marriage. Yes, sacred bond. The complications arise because a marriage is also a finacial arrangement, more so in those Victorian days than today when women are liberated and control their own finances and fortunes. In The Solitary Cyclist it would be financially advantageous for the villain to marry Miss Smith because as her husband he would gain control over her fortune. In The Speckled Band it would be financially cataclysmic for Dr. Roylott to let his step-daughter Miss Stoner marry because as a married woman she would take her income with her. The theme recurs in A Case of Identity. The step-father creates the imaginary (and disappearing) suitor Hosmer Angel to prevent his step-daughter Miss Sutherland her from marrying anyone else. For, of course, financial reasons. In Charles Augustus Milverton, when the blackmailer threatens to expose the indiscretions of his victims, he poses a threat not merely to their reputation and social standing but primarily to their marriage.

The most shattering crimes are those perpetrated within the family circle, by one member against another. In the Cardboard Box the sailor Jim Browner murders his faithless wife and her lover, but the main culprit may be the younger Miss Cushing who has encouraged her sister to pursue the illicit affair and ruined Browner's marriage and happiness. In The Priory School the kidnapper of the son and heir of the Duke of Holdernesse is his own illegitimate son. In the The Golden Pince-Nez the true crime is the betrayal of the wife by her husband, not the murder which is merely an accident and a by-product of the original crime. In The Copper Beeches Jephro Rucastle imprisons his own daughter in order to prevent her from marrying and depriving the family of her income (yet another instance of the already familiar theme). In The Hound of the Baskervilles the son of the long lost black sheep of the family returns to his ancestral grounds to claim what he perceives to be his heritage - ready to kill off any and all members of the family who stand in his way.

The family. Family was very important to Doyle, it was also a very sensitive point with him. Probably because there was lot of trouble with his own family when he was growing up. The fons et origo of the family problems was his father's alcoholism. After a while his father lost the light of his sanity and was committed to an insane asylum. After that Doyle's mother was reduced to taking lodgers. One of them was called Bryan Waller. He was a doctor and quite possibly Doyle's mother's lover. There are certain theories that the story of the cardboard box and the gruesome severed ears in some way reflected the illicit love triangle of Waller and Doyle's parents.

These are murky and dangerous waters of which Doyle himself never writes a word. Not consciously, that is. But sometimes bits and pieces seep into his stories, perhaps without him even realising the fact. This because the Holmes stories are never meant to be taken seriously, nor are they written with quite the same care and trepidation which he applied to his other more ambitious tales - more like off the cuff and on the fly. He took what first came into his head and ran with it. That is precisely why they do betray so much about Doyle the man. He gives himself away, time and again. Perhaps writing his stories is also, for him, a way to deal with the things that eat away at him, as it is with any writer, consciously or not. The tragic fate of his father. The scandalous behaviour of his mother. These things never go away. How could they? In her later years Doyle's mother even went so far as to move in with Waller, residing in a cottage on his estate; much it seems, to the chagrin of Waller's wife. Upon this point also Doyle remains mysteriously silent.

Much is open to speculation. However, upon this we may rely: the wounds are deep and the scars life-long and eternally sore, as they tend to be when received whilst growing up.

When he writes about crimes against family and marriage, Doyle is in earnest, deadly earnest. For him there can be no greater crime than the crime against or within the holy family circle. All the rest is merely twaddle.


Treasons, stratagems and spoils

Roderigo Lopes or Rodrigo Lopez was a Portuguese Converso and suspected Marrano, for which he had to flee for his life to England. A Converso was a Jew who had renounced his faith and been baptised, a New Christian, as they also were called. For a Jew in those days, in Spain and Portugal, it was rather a good idea to renounce your faith and become a Christian, otherwise they fried you at the stake. After having tortured you pretty extensively, that is. Hence many Conversos were also Marranos. A Marrano was a secret Jew, one who practised Christianity in public and Judaism in private.

In England Lopes, a doctor, eventually became physician-in-chief to Queen Elizabeth. He was granted privileges and soon became a wealthy man. Then, in 1593 he was arrested. The charge was extremely serious: conspiring to poison Her Majesty the Queen. The charge may have been false and simply politics; the Queen never seems to have been convinced of his guilt. However, Lopes was executed: hanged, drawn and quartered.

Marlowe mentions Dr. Lopes in one version of his Doctor Faustus: "Doctor Lopus was never such a doctor!" More significantly, he may have been the inspiration for the Jew Shylock in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. In the play Shylock's "currish spirit Govern'd a wolf . . . hanged for human slaughter." Wolf being lupus or Lopes. There seems to be some indication for this theory but the evidence is by no means more than circumstancial.

In Faye Kellerman's 1989 novel The Quality of Mercy Shakespeare encounters Lopes's plucky daughter Rebecca and, inevitably, falls in love. The year is 1593, the theatres have been closed - plague year - and Will has time on his hands. He can't write bloody poetry all the time! He's also trying to do some sleuthing: somebody has murdered a player colleague and Will aims to get to the bottom of the mystery and get justice for his wickedly slain friend.

Then we have the story of Dr. Lopes seen through his daughter's eyes. No, it's more than that, Kellerman expands it to include the whole history of Conversos and Marranos in Europe. There is also an interesting parallel: Catholics and the secret Catholics in England. The murdered man was born a Catholic, maybe he even died one. What about Shakespeare himself? Peter Levi's Shakespeare biography The Life and Time of William Shakespeare claims that Shakespeare too was a secret Catholic, at least born and raised one, and that his father John was a very stubborn Catholic and that this was the cause of his very spectacular downfall. There may be some truth in the suspicion, though I'd be wildly surprised if Shakespeare himself was ever particularly religious in any traditional sectarian fashion.

There is a lot of fascinating stuff in Kellerman's novel. Lopes is a meaty morsel and personifies a number of dynamic dichotomies. One couldn't ask for a better focal point. He's a Protestant but a Jew. The blood is never quite forgiven and former Jews and their offspring are ever second rate Christians. He's a doctor but has access to the highest circles in the realm. He's a bit of a profiteer. He's from Catholic Spain (Spain and Portugal were the same country at the time) and therefore automatically a suspect. He has secret dealings with Spaniards - obviously there are still family ties and suchlike - perhaps to smuggle out other Marranos. Nobody quite knows where his loyalties lie. He isn't much liked by Walsingham, the Queen's spy master. It's only five years since the Armada was crushed and the Catholics are still plotting. And the Jews? On whose side are they? Nobody much cares about that and everybody's out to get them. In retrospect it all seems so very obvious. For a man of his background he simply flew to close to the sun not to get his wings burned off. He never stood a chance really.

Rebecca is a good, strong, independent character in a world where women have just about zero independence and absolutely no clout (at least if they're unmarried). So naturally she dresses up as a man in order to acheive a certain degree of freedom, much like the more intrepid heroines of Shakespeare's plays. Which is of course why Will is attracted to her. Her father is close to the Queen so we get a glimpse of the courtly life and even of Old Bess herself (who, a bit surprisingly, turns out to be a fairly wicked lesbian lusting after young flesh), the only woman with any clout and independence at all. Her father's position doesn't make it any easier for Rebecca and fundamentally Rebecca's situation is, to say the least, impossible, her being not only a Jewess and Portuguese but a woman to boot. The odds cannot be beaten. There is no happy ending to her story, nor can there be.

As the novel is well-nigh 600 pages long there's also a lot of boring stuff. The main problem is that the bits about the Lopes family and the bits about the murder mystery never quite connect on any satisfactory level. The analogy between Jew and Catholic simply isn't enough to carry the book. It's like Kellerman wrote two novels and for some reason decided to package them between one set of covers: two for the price of one as it were. Another flaw is definitely the murder mystery; it isn't particularly interesting and it's abandoned for the longest periods of time, only for the case to be cracked wide open at the end. As if it were something of an afterthought. But at that point we don't particularly care who's croaked Will's chum and erstwhile mentor Harry Whitman any longer because Harry Whitman doesn't mean anything to us, nor does his murder. We've all but forgotten him. It's all very distant and academic. Pity. The fate of the Lopes family, that's what we care about. And so does the author. The murder mystery is superfluous and rather redundant. The book would be far better without it.

Another thing. Shakespeare and Lopes never actually mingle much. So the case of Lopes being the inspiration for Shylock is not particularly strong here. Which is a bit ironic, it being the whole premise, I suppose.

A few years back Charles Nicholl wrote a most excellent book on Christopher Marlowe and the events surrounding his death called The Reckoning. Now he's written another book called The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street. Silver Street in Cripplegate is the only known address of Shakespeare in London. He lived there for a while around 1603-04 (it's anybody's guess just for how long) as the lodger of a certain Christopher Mountjoy, a French tire-maker. A tire-maker, by the way, produces headgear and any little whatnots and thingummies one wears on one's head short of hats: wigs, head-dresses, headpieces. Some of it was for the stage - a nice solid theatrical connection there.

In 1612 Mountjoy's son-in-law Stephen Bellott sued him. According to Bellott Mountjoy had promised his daughter £60 in dowry and another £200 to Bellott in his will. But Mountjoy had gone back on his word and not paid. Mountjoy of course denied this. The key witness in the case was the lodger William Shakespeare. It was on his testimony the whole case turned.

The really fascinating thing is: the actual testimony of Shakespeare, word for word, is amongst the documents of the case. Shakespeare's words, just as he spoke them, have been taken down and preserved for posterity. The only such case known to exist.

Shakespeare's role in the affair was curiously large. Marie Mountjoy even asked him to act as a go-between in the courtship of her daughter and Mountjoy's apprentice Bellott (which sounds like it was from one of his own comedies - almost to good to be true). Testimony of Joan Johnson, maidservant: "And as she remembereth the defendant did send and perswade one Mr Shakespeare that lay in the house to perswade the plaintiff to the same marriadge." Shakespeare's testimony: "To the third interrogatory this deponent sayeth . . . that the said deffendantes wyeffe did sollicitt and entreat this deponent to move and perswade the said complainant to effect the said marriadge, and accordingly this deponent did moue and perswade the complainant therevnto".

Apparently he was also crucial in the dowry negotiations. Then in 1612 he was asked to testify. At first he told the officials that Bellott's cause was just and that the sums Belott claimed were indeed what Mountjoy had promised. Later, when he gave his deposition, he changed his story. Now, he claimed, he couldn't remember the exact sum that was agreed upon. This meant that Bellott lost his case.

There is no doubt that Mountjoy was in the wrong and lied. He seems to have been a notorious rascal. From the church elders he received stiff letters about his unfortunate habit of getting his serving wenches pregnant with illegitimate offspring. His reason for not giving his daughter her money was that he could not give it as he didn't know what he might need for himself later on. To Bellott he raved that he'd never see a penny of it whatever happened.

Another witness of note, besides Shakespeare, was a certain George Wilkins. Wilkins was a writer of sorts, a playwright, a novelist, a pamfletist, and thus Shakespeare's colleague. He wrote a novel about Pericles, based on the play, and a play called The Miseries of Inforst Marriage, based on a recent murder tragedy. He collaborated with Dekker, Day and Rowley. And possibly with Shakespeare as well. It is widely thought that he wrote the inferior bits in Pericles while Shakespeare wrote the better ones.

Wilkins was also a victualler. That was his main occupation. Victualler in those days was code for brothel keeper. One immediately thinks of the marvellous Pompey in Measure For Measure. Wilkins seems not to have been particulary marvellous, he was in fact a remarkably vicious pimp and a violent criminal. His assaults were always on women, he was a multiple woman beater. Once he kicked a pregnant woman in the stomach. This seems to have been how he kept his punks in order. Nasty character, I must say, and a fairly unlikely fellow to have collaborated with Shakespeare. Could he be the link between Shakespeare and other shady underworld operators like Wayte, Gardner and Langley? Is there a connection? As most theatre owners also owned brothels (on the very same premises too) it may well be that Wilkins was in fact a prime example of the sort of company Shakespeare did keep.

Nicholl's The Lodger is a pretty riveting read. However it suffers from the same ailment every other biographical study of Shakespeare's life. There simply isn't enough material there. It's just shreds and guesses. Nicholl hasn't got much to work with and ends up grasping at straws. He goes around in concentric circles, praying that he'd be in luck and stumble on something directly bearing on the case. The hard facts are few and far between. Nicholl does his best. It just isn't there. He simply does not catch that wily figure William Shakespeare napping. He shines his light but Shakespeare is already gone, he's slipped into the night without a trace. Thus always. Blasted man!