Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!


What I've been reading

The Intelligencer by Leslie Silbert. 338 pages, 2004, Washington Square Press.

I know - I don't read a book for months, and now I've burned through two in not very long. And guess what? I'm almost done another one!

I hate pull quotes like the one on the cover of this book: "If you liked The Da Vinci Code, you'll love The Intelligencer." On the back is another one: "Shakespeare in Love meets James Bond." I don't know why - those kind of quotes really bother me. Maybe I'm too snotty.

But this is a perfectly fine book. It's better written than The Da Vinci Code, which doesn't elevate it to fine fiction, I know, since Dan Brown's book was written as if by a ten-year-old. The Intelligencer is more interesting than Brown's book, too, even though it's not as exciting. Brown's chapters are all a few pages punctuated by a cliffhanger. It's a cheap way to keep us turning pages, but it gets annoying after a while. Silbert is a little more interesting in telling a story, so although plenty of chapters end with mini-cliffhangers, they don't feel as shameless as those in The Da Vinci Code. But enough about that book! What about this book?

Well, first of all, it's a thriller with, unfortunately, more than one mystery, which weakens both of them. The first mystery is the better of the two, not only because it deals with Christopher Marlowe, for whom I am a sucker (despite never having read any of his plays or even seen one performed), but because it is more of a mystery. Silbert writes a fictional version of Marlowe's final days, and "solves" the strange circumstances of his death. Marlowe may or may not have been a spy, which allows Silbert to examine briefly the Elizabethan espionage world, another topic I am fiercely interested in (and why I dig Marlowe despite my woeful lack of knowledge about his plays). In the book, Kate Morgan, a private investigator (hmmm ... Kate Morgan/Kit Marlowe?), is hired to decode a book of seemingly random papers from Elizabethan times. The man who hires her, Cidro Medina, is an idle rich Englishman whose contractors found the book while they were building for him. Kate discovers that the book belonged to Thomas Phelippes, a senior member of the Earl of Essex's espionage group in the 1590s, and believes it is part of a collection of papers that Phelippes took from Sir Francis Walsingham, the father of Elizabethan espionage, on Walsingham's death in 1590. As she deciphers the messages, she begins to think that the papers also contain clues to why Christopher Marlowe was killed in May 1593. Marlowe was killed in a tavern, supposedly during a dispute over the bill, but conspiracy theorists since have pooh-poohed this explanation and searched for deeper reasons. If Marlowe was a spy (there is scant evidence that he was, but nothing conclusive), his murder becomes much more sinister, as the men he was with that evening - Robert Poley, Ingram Frizer, and Nicholas Skeres - were all connected to the spy network of either the Earl of Essex or Sir Robert Cecil. Poley was one of the more famous spies of the age. Before she went into the private investigator racket, Kate Morgan was a scholar of Elizabethan spying, so she is perfectly equipped to deal with this. She is being stalked, however, by someone who believes the notes reveal something that Marlowe knew about a high-ranking official in Elizabeth's government that could embarrass the descendants of that official. Prestige among English nobility is still valued highly, and Morgan figures out that the secret could still be damaging to the descendants of the official.

Silbert switches back and forth between the present day and May 1593, and the device works fine. Marlowe goes about his last days, working both sides of the fence (Essex and Cecil were rivals for the position of Secretary of State, and therefore tried to discover secrets about each other as much as they tried to discover plots against England) and uncovering the secret that someone is willing to kill for 400 years later. Meanwhile, Morgan decodes the notebook. However, Silbert throws another plot into the works, and this is where the book goes a bit off track, even though it remains a good read.

Morgan works for a private investigation firm run by an ex-CIA agent. This agent also does some contract work for the government. The firm discovers that a world-famous art dealer who also works in the black market has been meeting with a member of Iranian intelligence. The art dealer has bought something from the Iranian, and Kate is given the job of discovering what it is. This plot twists in and out of the Marlowe one, and it turns out to be far more personal to Kate. She thinks at one point that it would be a remarkable coincidence if the two cases linked up, but they never do. I suppose that's a point for Silbert, to keep them separate when the temptation had to have been there to link them, but it keeps the book somewhat disjointed. Just when the Marlowe plot is taking off, we get the other plot. Just when that is taking off, we're back to Marlowe. I understand that the Marlowe plot just doesn't quite have enough to pack a book, and therefore Silbert needed more in order to have a decent-sized novel, but it's kind of weird and interrupts the flow of the book. Perhaps Silbert could have fleshed out either idea a bit more so that she could have written two books! The other frustrating thing is that the secondary plot, which deals with Kate's life both before she became a private investigator and after, is setting up the next book. That's fine if you want to start a franchise, but shouldn't you make sure that the first one is successful before you start laying the groundwork for a series?

Despite that, this is an entertaining book. It's always interesting to read a thriller that is not a huge conspiracy theory (this is a minor one, and not as far-reaching as many that are imagined) or that doesn't involve religious figures, who are whipping boys for thrillers a lot. It's also interesting to read one in which the fate of the world isn't at stake. I would think that might make it less thrilling, but just because the stakes aren't ridiculously high doesn't mean we can't get invested in the characters and be drawn along by the plot. This is a quick, fun read, with a good pulpy plot, and better written than you might expect. And it has Christopher Marlowe!!!!

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home