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Books
Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams


The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe

by Charles Nicholl.

Harcourt Brace, 432 pages, $24.95.

Christopher Marlowe, admired poet, successful playwright, homosexual, and suspected atheist, was killed in 1593, officially in a brawl over a bar bill, and his killer was acquitted on grounds of self-defense. The details of the affair were lost for centuries in unexamined records and since their rediscovery have raised scholarly eyebrows, including those of Mr. Nicholl. He has done a staggering amount of research on Marlowe's companions at that fatal meeting. There were three of them--Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres, and Robert Poley. The party assembled at about ten in the morning, not at a tavern but in the house of a respectable widow who, presumably, did not accommodate uncredentialed riffraff. So who were Marlowe's companions? Two, like Marlowe, were or had been employed in the intelligence service operated by Sir Francis Walsingham, and Frizer, the killer, was a servant (in the Elizabethan sense of any salaried employee) of Thomas Walsingham, who had also done secret-service work for his senior cousin. The group certainly looks like a gathering--or should it be a snoop? --of spies. Mr. Nicholl has discovered a great deal about the Walsingham intelligence network and the kind of people included in it, and the greater part of his book presents a fascinating gallery of informers, entrappers, double agents, and plain rogues. He believes that Marlowe's death was calculated murder, arranged because the poet threatened to become a spanner in the works of an elaborate unofficial plot. The theory is possible, even plausible, but as Mr. Nicholl acknowledges, his evidence falls short of proof. Marlowe had a record of violence. The other three did not. It remains conceivable that the killing was indeed tipsy self-defense against a dangerously belligerent drunk, for in the eight or more hours they spent together, those people cannot have stuck to water. No sensible Londoner willingly touched that poisonous stuff.



Six Walks in the Fictional Woods

by Umberto Eco.

Harvard, 148 pages, $18.95.

Mr. Eco delivered the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard in 1992-1993, and his remarks are, as one would expect, erudite, wide-ranging, and slyly humorous. His basic theme is the character and conduct of the properly accomplished reader, meaning one who recognizes the author's intention and contributes the appropriate suspension of disbelief even in the case of what Mr. Eco summarizes as "postmodern narrative," which has "by now inured readers to every possible metafictional depravity." Mr. Eco's literary examples range from Dante to Dumas, from Sterne to Spillane. His text is thought-provoking, often outright funny, and full of surprising juxtapositions.



Cats in the Sun

by Hans Silvester.

Chronicle, 144 pages, $29.95.

Mr. Silvester, a travel photographer noted for patience as well as skill, must have used all of the former in his study of cats on the Greek islands. Such cats are not household pets, although a few do, by persistent association with particular humans, establish rights to particular doorsteps. The islanders view them rather as independent fellow citizens whose efficiency in rodent control entitles them to respect and support. Mr. Silvester, who evidently enjoyed his reputation as "the fool who runs after the cats," photographed cats dozing, playing, arguing, politely accepting small tributes, and marching in dignified procession with a prospective source of provender. He filmed one cat airborne between gunwale and quay with a fish in its mouth, another dealing with an uncivil dog, and another working a mouse through twelve amazing shots. These must be the finest pictures ever taken of cats, both for the variety of the actions and for the absence of any attempt by the photographer to make the animals anything but their feline selves. The backgrounds of soft-edged, human-scale island architecture are an additional delight.



Brazil

by John Updike.

Knopf, 260 pages, $23.00.

Mr. Updike's latest novel begins in Brazil in the 1960s and follows the adventures of socially mismatched lovers whose flight from her father's thugs takes the pair all across the country and backtracks through its history. The fine scenic descriptions and grimly detailed sexual antics are normally Updikean, but in other respects the book is a picaresque tale with the what-next? pull proper to the genre and some dialogue that appears to be a deliberate pastiche of eighteenth-century style. Readers looking for significance beyond the interest of the immediate action will have no trouble finding it.



Born Naked

by Farley Mowat.

Houghton Mifflin/Peter Davison, 272 pages, $21.95.

Mr. Mowat's attractive memoir reveals that he was a most fortunate child. The family finances were initially precarious and his father's enthusiasms were always erratic, but space was limitless and parental tolerance very nearly so. Young Mowat's own enthusiasm was for the world of animals, birds, insects--any form of "the Others" aroused his interest and sympathy. The results of the boy's observant collecting and cosseting were now and then hilarious, possibly useful, and in one instance led to the end of his employment as the local paper's junior correspondent on birds. He wrote a precise description of the mating habits of the ruddy duck, and proofs were leaked to a member of what Robert Burns called the "unco guid." Mr. Mowat did not pursue his alleged talent as a pornographer. He stuck to wildlife and oddball explorations and spirited comedy and is still at it, to the great good fortune of his readers.



The Partisan

by Benjamin Cheever.

Atheneum, 261 pages, $21.00.

Mr. Cheever's novel concerns the difficulties of a writer who has lost his publisher. Jonas Collingwood is a veteran novelist with an impressive literary reputation and an unimpressive sales record. He has been published for years by an outfit that profits from the sale of farm-equipment catalogues. They are placid people who are rather proud of Collingwood and never presume to interfere with their author. When this amiable firm sells out to a hustling house misnamed Classic Publishers, poor Collingwood is confronted with blathering editorial nonsense, demands that he write a memoir of his service in the Second World War, and promises of unprecedented amounts of money. Collingwood is not used to large amounts of money. His adopted son, who tells the story, his adopted daughter, who snarls on the sidelines, and various family connections are all caught up in the ensuing gale of complications. Mr. Cheever is an amusing writer with a gift for sharp dialogue and evocative description. "The church was a stone fortress, built on a rise and with a halo of cracked and crooked tombstones. The positioning was excellent for defense, the walls thick enough to stop small-arms fire. One was given the distinct impression that the forces of evil would be coming soon, on foot, and equipped with pikes and harquebuses."



Lethal Passage

by Erik Larson.

Crown, 288 pages, $21.00.

This book, subtitled "How the Travels of a Single Handgun Expose the Roots of America's Gun Crisis," grew out of the January, 1993, cover story in The Atlantic Monthly.


Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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