Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Book Note: Something Rotten

Grantz, Alan. Something Rotten: A Horatio Wilkes Mystery. New York: Dial Books, 2007.

Every other year, I teach a course entitled "Modern Shakespearean Fiction." And during the alternate years, I try to keep up with the wealth of material produced in that genre. I'm gearing up to teach it again, and I find that I'm a bit behindhand—again—with my reading. But I'm catching up.

For example, I just finished reading Something Rotten: A Horatio Wilkes Mystery, a young adult recasting of Hamlet. Although I was a bit skeptical at first, the book gradually drew me in. It's presented more as a mystery—who killed the Hamlet analogue's dad and how and why?—than a tragedy, and I gradually came to like our protagonist / narrator, who is none other than Horatio.

Every other character in the book gets a different name: Hamilton (fans of the musical would approve), Olivia, Larry (Olivia's brother), and Paul (their dad). We also have Bernard and Frank, the security guards, and Rosco and Gilbert, Hamilton's fourth-grade acquaintances. Hamilton's dad's name is Rex; his uncle / stepdad's name is Claude; his mom's name is Trudy. Just as a side note, Horatio has sisters named Desdemona and Juliet.

In addition, Horatio and Hamilton (last name Prince—forgot to mention that before) go to a private boarding school called Wittenberg. The Elsinore Paper Plant is polluting the Elsinore river, which runs through Denmark, Tennessee.

Mostly, then, it's a straightforward retelling of Hamlet, but there are some fascinating diversions from Shakespeare's plot. I won't provide too many spoilers, but I will say that Horatio falls for Olivia, which complicates matters.

The two main things this novel has going for it are its narrator (the point of view of Horatio is a good one to have, and he's a likable smart aleck) and its self-awareness. The play-within-the-play in this novel isn't The Murder of Gonzalo. It's a local amateur theatre production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. And Rosco and Gilbert relax at one point by watching Strange Brew.

One nice touch comes in a voicemail message from Horatio's mom:
"What a piece of work is man [sic]!" My mom. The English lit. professor. "How noble in reason. How infinite in faculty. In form and moving, how express and admirable. In action, how like an angel, in apprehension, how like a god." And yet you can't be bothered to call your mother when you get to Hamilton's house? I will assume you are bleeding to death on the roadside in a twisted hulk of metal until you phone. (90-91)
But my favorite part is the self-reflexivity, as in the lead-up to the "entrapment by drama" scene:
Unfortunately, the pirates didn't attack until act three. The play roughly followed the plot of Shakespeare's Hamlet, focusing on the minor characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Personally, I'm a little tired of every author without a bright idea of his own putting a modern spin on a "classic," but I was a big fan of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Apparently Hamilton wasn't. He drove me nuts the whole play. (129-30)
This self-awareness takes the edge off what might otherwise be too pretentious.

All in all, Something Rotten is an enjoyable novel with a particularly enjoyable narrator. And that's a good thing—because there's another Horatio Wilkes mystery on my shelf: Something Wicked.

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sonneta said...

It's been a few years since I've read it, but I remember liking Something Rotten. Something Wicked didn't really do anything for me, on the other hand.

kj said...

Thanks, sonneta, for the comment. I'll give it a try soon and let you know!


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Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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