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Saturday, May 1, 2010

Book Review: What Time Devours by AJ Hartley

What Time Devours
Publisher: The Berkley Publishing Group, 2009

I'm not a big fan of Mystery Novels. I think the last batch of whodunnits
I wound my way through included works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and
Edgar Allen Poe. And that was a long, long time ago.

But when someone who is in the middle of one of these plentiful puzzlers;
someone I know to be a big fan of the genre; who devours them like they
would so much "penny candy"; (there's a mystery for you, the disappearance of
penny candy) when this mystery fanatic starts to repeatedly ask me for help with analyzing Sonnets 65,64, 123, 15 & 116...well, don't you know, they had my Shakespeare antenna up at the first mention of “sonnet” ? What gives here?

Having never written about a mystery novel, I realized (duh) that I'd have to
exercise, at least, what would be mere elementary care to some other reviewer more
accustomed to such things, in how I would go about this without giving it all

But then I realized that the very reasons I "devoured" this book (other than
its being habit forming) were because it was 1) about something having to do
with the Bard, and 2) because Hartley has a lot to say in the way of critique
when it comes to analyzing some of the more seedy and cutthroat aspects of his
own profession. And there's enough content in his book on Shakespearean scholarship, the calculating marketing techniques of the publishing industry, and some of his "invented" colleagues and their hell-bent need to climb to the top of the academic ladder, to allow for the focus of a review to be concerned with mainly that.

Why? Because A J Hartley is a bona fide Shakespearean scholar first.

Distinguished Professor of Shakespeare in the theatre dept. of UNC, the author
of "The Shakespearean Dramaturg", and editor of "Shakespeare Bulletin"
(available online btw) mystery writing is something of a departure for Hartley,
but in my opinion, he acquits himself equally as well as a mystery writer
as he apparently has done as a professor of Shakespearean Literature.

The adventures of one Thomas Knight, high school English teacher, "What Time
takes us on a wild ride of murders and attempted murders. Castle
skulking, moldy wine cellars, stuffy Shakespeare conferences, Stratford on Avon,
haughty academicians, people who speak exclusively in Shakespeare quotations,
and lunatic throwbacks to Dickens' Miss Havisham, all figure into the scheme.
But here's the kicker for fans of the Bard: The item many of the well-painted
characters in Thomas Knight's world will do most anything to get their hands on?
The "lost" copy of the supposed sequel to Loves Labors Lost, entitled "Loves Labors Won".
And that's where I'll end the "synopsis proper".

More to the point of this review, Hartley is not bashful in sending up those of
his profession on all accounts.

On the purpose of literary scholarship in general:
While attending a conference on Shakespeare, our hero, Thomas, finds himself the
brunt of some wily condescension, devilishly delivered by an attractive social
climbing professor in the dog-eat-dog world of today's academic scene:

--"But I want to learn about the play, about what it means--or might mean--what
makes it profound literature,
[says Thomas] not about how it's a matrix for
social energies and discourses..." "Oh!" she shouted, with the kind of delight
someone might muster on spotting a chipmunk. "You're a humanist!"

--[...] "I'm a high school teacher who has to convince kids why these four
hundred-year-old plays are worth reading when they can be playing video
[...] "Well, I think it's sweet," she said. "unfashionable and
politically a bit suspect, but kind of sweet."


"I love words", said Thomas, jutting his chin out.
[...] [on his students] "They live in a visual culture,
but without words...Language is about who we are, how we reason, even
how we feel. Words make experience."

--[...]"I just don't think the purpose of literature", said Thomas, pushing
through her amusement, "is to explore social hierarchy."

Commenting on the reading of a paper at the conference, (Thomas--and Hartley--
had me long before this) Hartley sums up, very nicely, his justifiable rant
against the gobbledygook academia can too often make of Shakespeare: " I'd just
like to hear something about the play,
Thomas huffed. "I thought
that was why we're here."

Hartley also pooh-poohs the Oxford authorship question with a deft analogy
centering on the television show "The West Wing", but I won't give that one
away here.

Speaking through Thomas, Hartley registers more than a palpable hit with
this evaluation of some of his modern day colleagues:

"Fifty years ago, Shakespeareans might have been card-carrying establishment
types, but not any more. Most academics think they're countercultural
progressives socially, politically. Shakespeareans have little invested in the
man from Stratford. Some of them don't even like his works that much. More
would embrace any hard evidence challenging his identity as the playwright
without batting an eyelid. It hasn't happened because there's no real evidence
that William Shakespeare of Stratford didn't write the plays credited to him in
his lifetime. I don't think the kind of evidence we'd get in a new play would
change that at all."

And on the purported real worth of the "evaluation" and "analyzation" of the
works of Shakespeare, Hartley targets what I believe to be a tragic
reality of the academic profession vis a vis its ties to the multi-million dollar world
of marketing and publication, and what such a discovery might mean:

"...every word, each word enough to generate an article, each sentence a book,
each page a career."

I could go on with many more relevant comments and conversation recorded in
the novel. But after all, it is a mystery--and a good one. I wouldn't want anyone to
think that literary commentary is its sole purpose. It's fun, entertaining,
chilling, and surprising, as any mystery should be. And mystery fanatics will
get more than their share of what they came for: An easy read with lots of question marks.

The plus? Also expertly interwoven into that mystery, readers will get what I
think is a true picture of what a lot of all this Shakespeare hubbub is about.
And for that aspect, I can only commend, in the highest way possible,
A J Hartley's ability to blend philosophy, social commentary, and a damned good
mystery story into one artful rendering.

I think I'm interested in mysteries again. JM

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