The Wanton Angel

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The Wanton Angel is Edward Marston’s tenth novel in a series of historical mysteries set in Elizabethan London and featuring Nicholas Bracewell, stage manager of Lord Westfield’s Men, a theater company whose continued existence frequently is at risk. The present crisis stems from intrigues at court in which Bracewell’s company and others are pawns; it is exacerbated by the seduction of their landlord’s daughter by an actor. When an unexpected benefactress appears, the company seizes the chance to build a permanent theater, which presumably could resolve present problems, but its rosy prospects are clouded when a promising new actor is murdered on the construction site.

Marston’s characters and the late-sixteenth century English milieu, by now familiar to regular readers of the Bracewell mysteries, are realistic, and though his cast acts predictably, suspense is credibly developed, and there are frequent plot surprises along the way. Leavening the seriousness and criminality are the plays Marston concocts for his actors: clever parodies of the real potboilers that delighted London audiences. Focal figures of this novel are resident playwright-actor Edmund Hoode, an erstwhile ladies’ man who now eschews romantic passion; shapely Rose Marwood, the landlord’s daughter, made pregnant by a mysterious lover; and her parents, chronically pessimistic Alexander and irritably shrewish Sybil, proprietors of the Queen’s Head, an inn whose courtyard is playhouse for Lord Westfield’s Men. Level-headed, reflective Bracewell not only orchestrates the smooth progress of performances, but also settles internecine conflicts and safely steers his troupe through potentially catastrophic difficulties, and when the occasion arises, he segues into the role of sleuth.

Not at all an armchair detective, Bracewell does his own legwork: accepting mysterious invitations, retracing the steps of murderers, and waiting in darkness to ambush thugs. He is cerebral too, concocting stratagems to smoke out suspects, devising means of subtly orchestrating the return of wayward actors, and deftly turning would-be saboteurs into accomplices or victims.

The Wanton Angel is a brisk read whose several puzzles are just part of its appeal, for seeing Lord Westfield’s Men at work and play is very much part of the pleasure the novel provides.