The Spy of Venice (Brandreth)

The Spy of Venice: A William Shakespeare Novel - Benet Brandreth

I enjoyed, but at the same time was slightly disappointed in this volume by the son of Gyles Brandreth. The latter has given me many pleasurable hours with his Oscar Wilde mystery stories, where he reimagines a literary great as a solver of mysteries. Benet Brandreth has taken advantage of that big gap in Shakespeare's known biography to set up the beginning of a series of adventure stories - not mysteries, but more action-oriented - featuring Will on a fictional but historically possible trip to Venice; presumably this volume's sidekicks, Nick Oldcastle (who was the real-life inspiration for Falstaff) and Heminges, fellow-actor and eventual publisher of the First Folio, will also continue to play a part in sequels.

The chief delight of the novel is the interweaving of an endless succession of Shakespearian references. The more Shakespeare you have lurking in your brain, the more smiles of recognition will break out across your face as yet another familiar phrase or situation surfaces in an unfamiliar context. The story itself is also not bad: there's nothing wrong with Brandreth's imagination and he clearly knows enough about the 1590s (English and Italian) to navigate from spies in the Bearpit to vengeful Italian femmes fatales, with many minor characters biting the dust along the way.  It's a decent romp in an interesting historical setting (for me, the story picked up considerably once  it moved to Italy).

For me at least, there was one constant irritant in the style. All too frequently, we'd read a perfectly good declarative sentence. Which was unnecessarily broken and followed by a sentence fragment. I don't mind this device when it's occasionally used for emphasis or to characterize a speaker, but when it appears every other page in the general narrative, it's just a nasty (and unskilful) little tic, and I wish there had been an editorial foot put down on it. Comparisons are odorous, as Dogberry says, but the language of Benet's Dad in the Wilde series is pretty much irreproachable.

Will is still in Venice at the end of this novel, no doubt with much still to observe about Jews on the Rialto amongst other things. If I see the second in this series, I'll likely give it a shot, but with lowered expectations. It's still a worthy entry in that remarkably voluminous sub-genre, stories featuring Shakespeare as a fictional character.