“Shakespeare’s Secrets,” by Bonnie Hoover Braendlin

Bonnie Hoover Braendlin

Reviewed by Janet McCann

Bonnie Hoover Braendlin’s second mystery in the Caulfield-Sheridan series is a delight.  In the first novel, Love and Death in Venice, she takes her duo to Venice where they get themselves in grave danger attempting to solve a murder that leads to the center of a truly evil organization.  Her second, Shakespeare’s Secrets, is set in the small town in Florida where the two women live. One of the pleasures of Shakespeare’s Secrets is the natural detail that enriches the reading experience without drawing attention to itself. The fictional small-town setting is highly realistic. The details of regional nature and life in the area are powerfully convincing.  In cozy—or relatively cozy—mystery novels, the setting must be authentic and dynamic, the culture and even the landscape defining the course of events. The regionalism of this book succeeds.

Cassandra, the cat, is vivid enough to satisfy lovers of animal cozies—but she’s a real cat and does not solve murders.  She is part of the friendly domestic realism:

Cassandra sprang onto the window seat to spy on a minuscule hummingbird hovering in midair, sipping nectar from the orange blossoms on a trumpet vine. When it darted away, the plump fur ball stretched out and began to lick her paws. Ariadne laughed. “She’s pretending she caught and ate that delectable morsel. Not that she’s ever tasted hummingbird. Or any other bird as far as I know. But I suppose the jungle instinct survives in house cats fed on canned food.”

“In a cat’s eyes, all things belong to cats,” Judith said, adding, “English proverb.” She reached for another cigarette, looked at it, then at Ariadne, and put it back.

Shakespeare’s Secrets is also an academic mystery, a sub-genre that so many of us retired or active teachers crave. The life of the college is astutely portrayed, its rough places and its satisfactions depicted in detail. Gossip and sexual intrigue run amok; fortunately, murder is less common on most real campuses.

The characters Ariadne Caulfield and Judith Sheridan are professors at Rutherford College in Coowahchobee, a town in northern Florida. They drive back to Ariadne’s home during a rainstorm after attending a play in Tallahassee.  To their dismay, they find the home has been broken into and trashed, and to their horror, there is a murder victim on the floor.

They recognize the victim as Randall Medina, an adjunct in the Rutherford English department, whom they don’t know well.  Neither can think of any reason why he might be anywhere near Ariadne’s house.  Of course they dial 911 and the investigation begins, with the two woman always a step ahead of the police. The narrative moves swiftly and certainly forward through suspicions, discoveries, and a second murder.  The plot is complex but not hard to follow. The ending is surprising yet fitting. The twist does not come out of nowhere but, in retrospect, seems perfectly logical. Readers will close the book with a sense of appreciation rather than puzzlement.

Shakespeare’s Secrets is a special treat for fans of the bard.  Each chapter begins with a quotation from one of the plays; the passage hints at the content of the chapter, and Shakespeare surfaces in the plot too. The apt quotations add a dimension of the literary not often found in mystery novels.

Bonnie Braendlin is a retired professor of English from Florida State University; she was known for her feminist criticism as well as her creative work during her tenure there. Braendlin is a worthy new name in the mystery field.  Her novels need not be read in order, but if you read one, you will want to read the other.

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