Friday, January 30, 2009

Something Rotten: A Horatio Wilkes Mystery by Alan Gratz

Main character: Horatio Wilkes
Location: Denmark, Tennessee
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Mystery, Shakespeare

I had heard of this book earlier this summer and have been looking forward to reading it. It's a modern-day retelling of Shakespeare's Hamlet set as a murder mystery and I must say I found it more appealing in its concept than in its execution.

Horatio Wilkes spends his summer at the home of Hamilton Prince, a school friend who has been deeply shaken by the unexpected death of his father and his mother's quick remarriage to his uncle. Hamilton's family owns the Elsinore Paper mill which is the mainstay of Denmark's economy, but which is also polluting the town's river. Hamilton takes Horatio on a tour of the plant, where a couple of the security guards show Hamilton a video they discovered--Hamilton's father, looking older and frailer than he had when Horatio last saw him, revealing that he has been poisoned and there is no cure. Hamilton is convinced that his uncle is his father's murderer and asks Horatio to help him prove it. Well, I'm sure you can figure out where the plot goes from here.

There are some nice touches in here--the best of which is the environmental subplot. Olivia, a beautiful young woman who used to date Hamilton until he dumped her, is campaigning to force the paper plant to clean up the water. At one point, she even drinks the filthy water while filming a news story--the toxic sludge causes her to collapse and she is dramatically rushed to the hospital. Not only does this act as a nice counterpart to Ophelia's drowning, but it gives a hint as to what poison was used to kill Hamilton's father.

But the novel also strains to make the parallels, including a hostile takeover of Elsinore by Ford N. Branff (Fortinbras), and the idiot pair of Roscoe and Gilbert who add little to the story. Then there is the community theater, putting on the Tom Stoppard play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead--you can just see the author waggling his eyebrows at you over that one.

There is a sequel, Something Wicked, in which Horatio solves a mystery with strong parallels to Macbeth, which I will read, but not with the excited anticipation that I had for this book.

1 comment:

Sarah Eriksen said...

It's a shame that such a cleverly-constructed adaptation should fall short on delivery. At the very least, we can hope it helps get younger audiences interested in Shakespeare. As a librarian, you might be interested in checking out The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by Shmoop, which does a good job of making literary analysis fun and relevant for high-school and college students.