Mask of Night

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In Mask of Night, Nick Revill, a young actor in London in 1603, leaves town with William Shakespeare’s Chamberlain’s Company to avoid the plague. The company has been invited to Oxford to perform Romeo and Juliet for a special performance celebrating an imminent marriage that will join two rival families. Nick and the company settle at the Golden Cross Inn, where they will give several public performances of Romeo and Juliet and a few other plays in preparation for their private engagement. Soon after their arrival, Nick begins to witness strange things: three men clothed in large bird-like costumes lurking in the alleyways, secret meetings between important townspeople, and the bride-to-be receiving dolls on her doorstep. When some of the townspeople start to die mysteriously, Nick and his friend Abel start snooping. The plague has come to Oxford as well, but people seem to be dying from more than disease.

The mystery is very suspenseful because there are several very plausible suspects, a number of possible motives for the murders, and suspicious things occurring all around the murders and the coming wedding. There is instruction in the working of poisons and potions, there is tension from the increasing threat of the plague, and there is great entertainment in the depiction of the company’s performances and their day-to-day life as actors in Shakespeare’s theater. There is also a separate narrative between chapters by one of the murderers, whose sketchy and secret observations provide a taut counterpoint to Nick’s main narrative.

Apart from a few self-consciously clever quips concerning Shakespeare’s work and reputation in the four hundred years that follow the narrative, this mystery is a very successful blend of historical fiction, amusing back-stage slice of life, and real suspense.