Wednesday, April 11, 2012
CHAIN of FOOLS
This medieval mystery series began in 1999 with the appropriately-titled Thirteenth Night. And yes, it's a sequel to a certain Shakespearean play, although in this case it's the clever Fool who takes centerstage, as sleuth and crime-solver.
And he's not the only one. Gordon imagines a Fools' Guild operating across medieval Europe whose members—acrobats, jugglers, and spies—are inserted into the palaces and retinues of the wealthy and powerful in hopes of influencing world events in favor of peace, averting wars, solving hidden crimes, and dispensing justice.
In Thirteenth Night, we learn that the name "Feste" was merely an alias for the Fools' Guild veteran known privately as Theophilos. 15 years after the events of Shakespeare's play, having foiled the plans of Saladin's agent, Malvolio, Theophilos is sent back to "the Duchy of Orsino" to investigate the murder of the late Duke. A case which happily reunites Theophilos with the Duke's widow, the spirited Viola, who is destined to become apprentice, partner, wife and soulmate to Theophilos throughout the series, in their many adventures on behalf of the Guild.
Who doesn't want the Fool to get the girl? This is by far the most delicious wrinkle in Gordon's audacious design. Subsequent books take the pair to real medieval sites—Constantinople, Jerusalem, Toulouse, the Black Forest—where they interact with known events. There are also occasional detours into other tales of other famous fools, such as Terence of York (nicknamed "Yorick"), of the court of Denmark, in An Antic Disposition.
The great charm of the series is the way Gordon skillfully imagines an entire underground society that's completely off the radar of conventional historical research—yet convincingly embedded in the history of its times.
It was my pleasure to meet Alan Gordon at a Historical Novels Society conference a few years ago. (We were both panelists, although, sadly, not on the same panel.) I'd hauled my personal hardcover copy of Thirteenth Night all the way from Santa Cruz to Albany, NY, in hopes of getting him to sign it. Which he did, although he professed himself astonished to meet someone who had actually bought it in hardcover. ("A rare book," he observed wryly.)
I haven't yet read all the Fools' Guild mysteries, but with eight books in the series (so far), looks like I've got some happy reading ahead!