Thursday, June 19, 2008

Cool mystery series from dramatic classics

Bloomsday was a few days ago, the day people celebrate James Joyce’s Ulysses and Leopold Bloom, the hero of that book. In Dublin, Ireland, they have a huge festival every year, with tourist events, pub crawls and theatrical re-enactments of whole chapters of the book. The book is about a single day in the life of Bloom, and the book is titled Ulysses because the events of the day match up against the decades long travails of Odysseus (or Ulysses in Latin), the hero of the ancient Greek epic The Odyssey.

I’ve never read it, but I have multiple friends who have—they love the book, call it a modern masterpiece and try to get me to join them on Bloomsday for a 36-hour nonstop joint reading of the thousand-plus page tome.

Lots of contemporary writers have taken to revisiting classic tales. One current popular theme is myths, Greek (the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series by Rick Riordan is incredibly popular) and Norse (both Joanne Harris’s Runemarks and Nancy Farmer's Sea of Trolls come to mind) being probably the most common. Novels or even series that retell fairy tales are also big. So it should come as no surprise that somebody would take on Shakespeare.

Beginning with Something Rotten, and continuing in the soon to be released Something Wicked, Alan Gratz turns classic Shakespearean tragedies into hardboiled detective novels.

The Hollywood movie pitch meeting would sum Something Rotten up like this: “This is Hamlet as written by Raymond Chandler starring hot young actors like a teen Ryan Phillippe or Shia LaBeuf.”

And, crass and cynical as that sentence reads, there’s some truth to it. Hell, I’ve handed the book to lots of folks telling them something similar (minus the “hot young actors” part). It works—people’s eyes light up. They get the idea, and the idea of it excites them enough to read it. But something about that summary bugs me, and it’s because it does feel like a pitch. Like it sums up the book, or worse.

You know when people try to remake a classic in the hopes of tricking teens into liking it? They try to make it hip and the whole thing comes out stupid? Which happens because they don’t have enough faith in the classic or in their audience, and it falls flat because it’s cynical and tiresome and insulting. And that’s why I don’t like talking about Something Rotten in terms of a simple equation or formula, because it’s not formulaic.

Yes, Something Rotten has the plot and characters of Hamlet as its skeleton. Horatio Wilkes is best friends with Hamilton Prince, of Denmark, Tennessee, a rich kid whose uncle Claude possibly killed Hamilton’s paper magnate father and married his potentially complicit mother. And was Hamilton’s ex-girlfriend Olivia involved? And is Hamilton going off the deep end or is he faking the whole thing in hopes of tricking people into revealing more than they know?

The book is narrated by Horatio, in a voice both hardened and hopeful, punchy and philosophical, matching the hard-boiled lyricism of Raymond Chandler’s most enduring creation, the private detective Phillip Marlowe. So now you hold pieces of this puzzle, elements that make up the novel, and you think you’ve got a handle on it. But it’s more than all this.

These characters live on their own, they lift out of the references and knowing nods to history and literature and become their own creatures—which is where Something Rotten gets exciting. Because then the play Hamlet recedes but never quite falls away, becoming instead a looming fate with which the novel shadow boxes to a standstill, with which the characters dance and weave in and out of until you aren’t sure if they’ll be able to escape the bloody, bloody ending of the play. And you hope they will because they’ve earned it, they live and breathe on their own.

And isn’t that part of what makes James Joyce’s Ulysses great? Leopold Bloom’s small triumphs of daily life become epic triumphs as they echo the travails of Odysseus’s journey home. So too does the mystery of who killed Rex Prince take on more meaning and urgency, because Horatio is trying to beat two clocks: both the burning deadline of his present moment—can he solve this murder before his best friend, or the ex-girlfriend, or even he himself ends up dead?—and the ticking time-bomb that lies in the deep structure of the novel, that history of which Horatio isn’t even aware, but which we, as readers, are.

With Something Rotten, Alan Gratz has stretched the novel beyond the snappy idea of “What if Raymond Chandler wrote a YA novel based on Hamlet?” His writing has a life of its own, not merely a mirror of hardboiled phrases and patterns, but full of energy, describing a world, and, in hero Horatio Wilkes, a character with enough verve and life you are excited to follow him into as many novels as Gratz wants to write in this series.

As a bonus, check out this interview with the author at

Something Rotten
by Alan Gratz
Published by Dial Books


Kristopher said...

When I was trying to understand Shakespeare, one of the mental tricks I came up with was pretending that his plays were long lost episodes of The Sopranos.

His kings and generals act a lot more like modern gangsters than modern politicians or military personnel, so it made their motivations and decisions easier to comprehend.

I'll have to check Something Rotten out.

A Paperback Writer said...

Something Rotten sounds a good deal more likeable than Ulysses.
However, the author will not be able to use the quote "A Good Hanging" (from 12th Night) as a title for a mystery because Ian Rankin already did (okay, Rankin used it for a collection of short stories, and they're not based on Shakespeare, but you get the idea.)