Entered from the Sun is the third novel about Elizabethan and Jacobean England by George Garrett, poet, short- story writer, critic, and professor of creative writing at the University of Virginia. The first, Death of the Fox (1971), dealt with the life and execution of Sir Walter Ralegh; the second, The Succession (1983), presented the complex drama whereby James I succeeded Queen Elizabeth. Entered from the Sun investigates the murder of Christopher Marlowe, the chief Elizabethan playwright before William Shakespeare. Garrett’s novels have received high critical praise for their research, artistry, and ability to recreate the past in terms meaningful to the present. The work of a poet, they are worlds apart from the formulaic escapist costume romances that all too often pass as historical fiction. Death of the Fox begins with the trial of Ralegh for treason, but before his execution, Garrett not only flashes back into Ralegh’s spectacular life but also digresses into the multifaceted aspects of the brilliant age of Elizabeth and the sordid age of James that followed it. The Succession not only deals with the events of 1603 but also moves back and forth through the half- century of politics and plots that culminated in them. Unlike Robert DeMaria’s To Be a King (1976), Entered from the Sun is not a straightforward novel about Marlowe. Though the investigation of Marlowe’s murder gives Entered from the Sun a tighter plot line than Garrett’s preceding novels, the author uses it to immerse the reader in the turbulent, chaotic final years of the reign of the old and childless queen. In an epilogue, Garrett confesses that he finds the Elizabethans more vital, “more interesting than we are,” and that he loves to go back to them “for delight and instruction,” the two qualities that Sir Philip Sidney said literature was to give the reader.
The novel begins with the abduction of Joseph Hunneyman, an unemployed actor, by two murderous thugs, who take him through a labyrinth of streets to a cellar; there he is interrogated by an exquisite young man, who recruits his reluctant prisoner to find out “how Marlowe was really killed. And why.” Though Hunneyman barely knew Marlowe, the unknown recruiter, an agent for a higher unknown power, thinks him an appropriate sleuth because, as an actor, he is a man of disguises who knows his way in theatrical circles. Through Hunneyman, Garrett shows his reader the colorful world of the Elizabethan theater, the London stages, the troupes wandering the countryside to escape the recurrent London plagues, the precarious, venturesome lives of the playwrights and players, for whom fortune was often a jade. At the same time, another unknown party recruits a veteran of the wars, Captain William Barfoot, to find out the facts about Marlowe’s murder. Neither party knows of the other, but as their paths cross, they become aware of each other and of the sinister possibilities that may lie in wait for them if their courses collide. Neither knows his employer or the reasons that the details of how Marlowe died four years ago are important to the shadowy figures in power.
The two investigators make a striking contrast; Hunneyman is young, hopeful, and exceptionally handsome; Barfoot, a middle- aged mass of scar tissue, is so strikingly ugly that his looks have a repellent attraction. Though Barfoot looks dangerous and is capable of acting ferocious, he is no swaggering bravo but a thoughtful, usually soft-spoken, troubled person who walks as gracefully as a dancer and douses himself with women’s perfume. Customarily taciturn, he sometimes talks at length about the ironies of philosophy and fortune, as if only “the armor of his words” protects him from death. One of the paradoxes about him is that he is a secret Catholic at a time when Catholicism is considered subversive, who fought and suffered in England’s wars against its Catholic enemies, and who is now a spy for his prosperous elder brother. Barfoot has endured enough wounds and pain (he has even had and survived the Black Plague) that he seems to have nothing left to fear; his scars seem a sort of armor for a stoic temperament, but in fact his outlook is one of bleak despair. His experiences have taught him that there is no limit to human cruelty, stupidity, and greed. Believing that death has spared him thus far “for the sake of something truly terrible,” he lives for the moment, enjoying a pair of Dutch whores. Yet he has his secrets and is a mystery to his associates. His face is a mask, and, like Hunneyman, he is a sort of actor. Though Barfoot sometimes tells parts of his story in conversation with or letters to his brother, both he and the narrator advise the reader not to trust him.
As befits a mystery involving spying, duplicity, equivocation, and betrayal, things are not...