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:
But my favorite part is the self-reflexivity, as in the lead-up to the "entrapment by drama" scene:"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)
This self-awareness takes the edge off what might otherwise be too pretentious.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)
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.