A murder in an Elizabethan theatre

Edward Marston is a prolific writer of light mysteries and crime novels set in various historical periods. He is perhaps known best for his Railway Detective novels – I review the first one of these here. I have enjoyed all of his books that I have read. The Merry Devils is set in Elizabethan London and in a theatrical company which occasionally performs in front of the queen. This setting is almost identical to that in Philip Godden’s mystery novel The Pale Companion which I review here and there isn’t a huge amount of difference in the style or setting of the books that I could see.

Nicholas Bracewell is the bookholder of the company which means that he is the producer and stage manager. He creates the special effects, negotiates the rent where plays are performed and tries to keep everybody happy. In this case it is harder than usual because the play being performed involves representing devils on stage being called up by an enchanter and everyone is nervous in case the subject matter offends. Some people are even concerned that real devils might be produced by their play and this looks like coming true when instead of two devils at the first performance there are three on stage. The company experiences lots of practical problems and one of the actors is killed. Nicholas needs to find out who is sabotaging the company but he needs to avoid injury himself.

Nicolas has to sort this out while arranging for the troupe to perform at the house of the son of their patron – they can’t afford any issues which mean that patronage is withdrawn. The author also follows the stories of other characters including two young women who escape from their families to see the plays and the author of the offending play who seems to be going mad.

This is the second book in this series and I have read the first, The Queen’s Head. I have found them well plotted and fun to read. The history is as accurate as my understanding of the period can confirm and there is a real sense of atmosphere in the setting. I have to say that dialogue is not the author’s strong point, in my opinion, and the characters’ speech appears stilted and unnatural (I find this in all his books irrespective of the time period in which they are set) but you do get used to this when reading. There was also the hint of the supernatural in this book which I wasn’t sure worked very well.

I enjoyed this story as I did the first in this series. They are enjoyable mystery novels and satisfying to read.

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