When an old friend and colleague passes away, an LSU English professor named Jack Claire travels to Swansea, Wales, to attend the funeral and is bequeathed a cache of handwritten manuscripts, the plays of William Shakespeare, along with a rare, leather-bound copy of the First Folio --the first collection of Shakespeare's plays. A problem arises, however, when he recognizes that the handwriting is NOT William Shakespeare's. He returns to Baton Rouge with and attempts to authenticate the documents, inadvertently alerting a ruthless collector who covets these priceless literary artifacts. The collector hires a relentless mercenary to steal the Shakespeare papers. Benedict resorts to violence when his surreptitious searches fail.
In California, Joseph Lawrence Conrad, a handsome young college instructor, receives mysterious handwritten original plays of Shakespeare. Not an Elizabethan scholar, Joe Conrad seeks the help of a colleague named Jonathan "Smitty" Smythe, a literary Sherlock Holmes to Joe's Watson. At once, Smitty recognizes the potential of the manuscripts and enlists the aid of Silvia Williamson, a brilliant and beautiful African-American scholar from Berkeley. As these three amateur sleuths labor to authenticate the manuscripts and determine the true author of Shakespeare's plays, they learn someone is after the priceless papers --and he's leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. Eventually, everyone connected to the Shakespeare papers is in danger, including Joe's wife and children.
Plots intersect as the scholars discover evidence (based on thorough research) pointing to the most probable author(s) of Shakespeare's works, while the ruthless collector grows closer to the prize. Along the way, Joe and the others are assisted by police detective Ryan Dunn, who saved Joe and his family years earlier, FBI Agent Terry Lott, who helps uncover the identity of the mercenary, and Bill Morgan, an attorney who assists in protecting the Shakespeare papers and the family.
This fast-paced journey of discovery takes these appealing characters from Louisiana to California, to Washington, DC, Oxford, England, Swansea, Wales, and back to London where they discover a surprising link to today's Queen Elizabeth and the Royal Family, which ultimately leads Joe and Smitty to Stratford-upon-Avon, where they come face to face with a surprising and lethal truth.
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Read an Excerpt
First FolioA Literary Mystery
By Scott Evans
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2010 Scott Evans
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFor aught that I could ever read, Could ever hear by tale or history, The course of true love never did run smooth. From A Midsummer's Night's Dream
As he tore through the wet streets of Baton Rouge, tears of anger streamed down his face. Jack Claire had hoped to authenticate the Shakespeare manuscripts before he died. But now? Now that the documents had caused Maggie's death, he wanted nothing to do with them. If only he'd taken the stranger's first calls more seriously, Maggie might still be alive. He slammed the palm of his hand against the steering wheel. The surge of anger caused his heart to pound fiercely and brought a sharp pain to his chest.
Calm down, old boy.
Even at sixty-six, he had been in remarkable shape, tall and fit and feeling well. Until now. Now the image of the slender stranger he'd first seen at Maggie's funeral made him regret ever finding the manuscripts in the office of an old friend, Phil Owens, who had been a visiting professor from Wales.
Years earlier, Jack had taken Phil under his wing at LSU, so when Phil died, he left his books and papers to Jack. Jack arranged one more sabbatical to England, ostensibly to interview new Shakespearean scholars at Oxford University, but in reality to visit his old friend's widow.
Buried among stacks of loose papers inside a massive wooden bookcase in Phil's dark, musty office at Swansea University, as if hidden decades ago, was a metal box, the size of a file cabinet drawer. Jack hauled it out and lifted it onto Phil's desk. Inside was a cache of handwritten manuscripts, written on sturdy cotton stock he recognized as the type of paper used in the sixteenth century, and, in superior condition, a leather-bound copy of Jaggard and Blount's First Folio. How many copies of the first collection of William Shakespeare's plays had Isaac Jaggard printed? Five hundred? This copy had all the hallmarks of an original 1623 volume!
Staring at the manuscripts, Jack instantly recognized their value. A good copy of the First Folio was worth over $500,000. But the handwritten manuscripts? As literary artifacts, they'd be worth a fortune, equivalent to an undiscovered Van Gogh painting.
Sitting in his dead friend's office, Jack had stared in awe at the neat, uniform penmanship—it was not the same as William Shakespeare's. Could this be the proof that Will Shakespeare was not the author of the plays after all? If so, why hadn't Phil Owens exposed the manuscripts? Afraid he'd become a laughing stock if the papers were fakes?
Jack remembered leaning back in Phil's old chair, wondering why Phil hadn't given them to the world?
What if you had proof Melville hadn't written Moby Dick? Or Milton wasn't the author of Paradise Lost? Should he expose such a truth?
No. Not without absolute proof.
Now with the Louisiana rain slapping the windshield, Jack parked on the street, looking behind the car to see if the other man had followed. Seeing no one out of the ordinary, he hurried into the post office, carrying the heavy box, only the second person in line.
A simple cardboard box filled with four-hundred-year-old documents recording history's greatest achievements and most profound tragedies. The irony of it stabbed his heart like the memory of his wife's death.
A heavy-set clerk waved Jack to his window.
"What's in the box?" the clerk asked.
"Books," Jack answered.
"You want to send it book rate or priority mail?"
"You can send it priority and have it tracked," said the clerk. "Cost a little extra, but you'll be able to check its progress."
Jack considered the suggestion. If I can track it, then maybe the killer could, too.
"No, just book rate will do. I'm in no rush now." Jack looked over his shoulder.
The clerk put the postage tag on the box and pulled it from Jack's hands.
Jack couldn't believe it. In the time it took to glance over his shoulder, the box of Shakespeare's manuscripts had been taken from him—papers that could change the world of literature, now in the hands of postal workers.
What have I done?
"Sir," the clerk said. "Anything else?"
Jack turned and reluctantly walked out of the Post Office building. When he stepped outside, nearly blown down by gusts of wind, he pushed through the slanting rain toward his car and threw open the door. As he backed up, he saw the lean stranger, dressed in black, dashing toward him. The man stopped in his tracks. Under the rim of a dripping wet, black baseball cap, the man's sharp eyes peered through the fogged windshield at Jack. For a few seconds, the two men just stared at each other.
Then Jack peeled out of the parking space so quickly that the driver behind him laid on the horn. He drove around the corner and headed to the capitol.
He and Maggie had taken visitors to the Huey P. Long state capitol on many occasions, showing them the observation deck at the top of the tower. The thirty-four story limestone-clad building, a shining example of neo-classical architecture with quirky Art Deco details, looked like a phallic symbol to him—with the two lower chambers, the House and the Senate, on either side of the tower. It was the tallest state capitol in the U.S. The observation deck on the twenty-seventh floor encircled the rest of the tower and, on clear days, offered impressive views. Louisiana lay out flat, green and lush in all directions. You felt as if you could see New Orleans to the southeast, and Jackson, Mississippi, to the northeast.
He pulled into a space directly in front of the building and walked as quickly as he could through the downpour.
Lightning exploded nearby, followed by the kettledrums of thunder. Jack shook off the rain as he scurried through the ornate Memorial Hall to the elevators. The large bronze relief map of Louisiana looked dim and unimpressive in the dark lobby, as did the two large oil paintings that served as murals depicting idealized scenes of life in Louisiana. A couple of security guards stopped talking long enough to watch Jack cross the empty lobby. When the doors of one elevator opened, Jack immediately stepped inside.
He got off at the highest floor the elevator reached in order to walk up two more narrow flights of stairs to the observation deck on the twenty-seventh floor. A maintenance man was unlocking a door to the janitor's closet when Jack, out of breath, finally reached the last step. The man watched as Jack tried the handle of the door that led outside.
"Why is this door locked?" Jack asked, looking at the door.
"Ain't nobody goin' out in this storm," the worker answered.
Jack turned to look at the man. "But I must get outside. I won't be long."
The worker shook his head. "It's a damn hurricane out there, mister."
Jack studied the janitor's face. "You don't understand. I'm a meteorologist at LSU," he said. "I've been appointed by the Governor to study this storm. We've got to be prepared for another Katrina, don't we?"
The worker cocked his head and gave Jack a skeptical look.
"You got identification?"
"Of course." He retrieved his wallet, which fell open to reveal both his driver's license and his LSU faculty ID card. He placed his thumb over the "lish" in "Department of English" and showed the ID to the worker. "See? Just as I said. Dr. John Claire, Department of Engineering, Louisiana State University."
The man inspected the laminated ID card.
"You said you was in the weather department?"
"My good fellow," Jack explained, "the meteorological department is a division of the Department of Engineering."
"I guess that makes sense." He clutched his keys and walked over to the door. "Now ya'll be careful out there."
"Don't worry. I'll be off that roof before you can say, 'to be or not to be'."
Even with concern in his eyes, the worker unlocked the door and held it open.
Jack pushed around the corner of the building, but he was knocked backward momentarily, squinting as wind-whipped rain pelted his face. About as wide as a sidewalk, the deck went around all four corners of the inner part of the tower that rose another seven stories above him. To his left, the walls of the building; to his right, the short guard wall and railings through which visitors could look.
But not today. The clouds and sheets of heavy rain obscured Jack's view. He staggered forward. At the southwest corner of the observation deck, he could climb up on the telescope platform and reach the low bars, which curved inward at the top corner.
Jack struggled, not having counted on the wetness. He placed a foot inside a brace—it provided a foothold that allowed him to straighten up and straddle the barrier. In throwing his right leg up over the high railing, he caught a glimpse of the dark figure rushing toward him. Jack used all his strength to swing the rest of his body over the railing. He slid down on the other side, but his right foot slipped off the edge. Regaining his foothold, he gripped the wet bars tightly.
Jack stared into the killer's face. Shortly cropped black hair framed the man's sharp features under a baseball cap. The man's blue eyes squinted in the wind and rain, under thick black eyebrows. A few pockmarks scarred the hollows of his cheeks. His nose dripped with rain over thin lips and straight white teeth.
"What are you doing, Dr. Claire?" yelled the killer over the roar of the wind. "Climb back over, old man." He pointed a black pistol at Jack's heart.
Jack glanced at the gun and smiled. "All morning, I've been trying to think of the right thing to say. 'Once more into the breach!' doesn't seem to fit. 'How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world.' That doesn't seem quite right, either, does it?"
"Tell me where the papers are, and I'll let you live."
"'What an ass am I?'" Jack roared. "'Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words and fall a-cursing.'"
"WHO DID YOU SEND THOSE PAPERS TO?"
A shard of lightning cut through the boiling clouds overhead as thunder exploded around them.
"Do you know Dickens?"
"You must know A Tale of Two Cities?"
"Is this some sort of clue?"
Jack smiled broadly, staring into the quizzical eyes of Maggie's murderer.
"Yes, a clue. Listen carefully."
The man turned his ear toward the old professor, who said, "Tis a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done before. A far better rest I go to than I have ever known."
The killer switched the gun from his right hand to his left, then grabbed Jack's raincoat and tugged him hard against the wet iron bars.
Stunned by the impact, Jack's heart exploded with pain. His vision blurred. His knees weakened. When he looked up, he could not see the man's face clearly. A sudden urge to reach through the bars welled up inside him. But everything darkened.
Jack released his grip on the cold, black iron and twisted, slipping his arms out of his raincoat. For a moment, he stood in place watching the other man grab for him. Then Jack leaned back and disappeared from the killer's view.
The professional let the rain pelt his back as he walked to the door. He pushed the door open and went inside, stepping over the body of the janitor who had tried to stop him. A wide pool of blood ebbed from the man's body, forming a circle on the marble floor. The killer holstered his gun inside his dark jacket, hurried down the stairs and pushed the button for the elevator.
On the first floor, several people rushed to the windows to look at the large, lifeless body that had landed with a sickening thud on the sidewalk just outside.
No one paid attention as the dark figure walked in the other direction.
The rain fell softly. To the south, the edge of the clouds became visible. On the horizon, a thin ribbon of blue sky and orange sunlight revealed itself. This tempest soon would pass.
Chapter TwoWhat a hell of witchcraft lies In the orb of one particular tear. From A Lover's Complaint
Joseph Lawrence Conrad sat in his office at Central Lutheran University in Stockton, California, stunned by the message he'd just heard. Jack Claire, dead. He replayed the voicemail and listened to the somber voice of Hayden Crawford again. "I know you were close to Dr. Claire, so I'm sorry to have to tell you this. He committed suicide a few days ago. There will be a funeral next Saturday at The Cathedral of St. Joseph Catholic church. I hope you can attend, but of course we'll understand if you can't, it being such short notice. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news."
Joe stared at the photo of Jack he kept on his desk. Dr. Claire had been more than a mentor; he'd been like a second father. It had been Jack who had recommended him for his teaching job at CLU. Tears welled up in Joe's eyes, but he wiped them away and prepared to face his students. It was the day of their mid-term exam. Jack would want him to go on with work.
Inside a wood-paneled classroom, Joe turned his back to the students, hoping they would not see his bloodshot eyes, and wrote the exam prompt on a whiteboard. When he finished, Joe brushed strands of light brown hair off his forehead and faced his class. The students in his summer course groaned.
"No complaining," he said, forcing a grin. "You knew what to expect."
They dutifully began writing. The reading list for the popular course, titled "Criminal Intent in Literature, Past and Present," included Hamlet, Crime and Punishment, In Cold Blood, and A Lesson before Dying. Two nonfiction works were also required for the course, John Grisham's An Innocent Man and his own autobiographical book, Tragic Flaws, which he'd written after being accused of several murders. The book had sold well during the real killer's trial, but sales had dropped off and he'd just received a letter from Random House that there wouldn't be a second printing—news he'd taken in stride.
As the students wrote furiously, Joe lowered his 6'2" frame into a chair and looked out the classroom window, losing himself in flashes of memory as he stared at the tall redwood trees outside. He recalled his first meeting in Jack's office when he interviewed to become Jack's research assistant.
While eating his lunch, Dr. Claire seemed to delight in feeding the gray squirrels. One by one, they climbed down the branches of the massive old oaks along the ledges outside his window, scampered right inside and made themselves at home, eating the peanuts Jack set out on his cluttered desk. His secretaries—Agnes, older, plump and white, Missy, younger, skinny and black—stood in the doorway to the office and cringed as Jack fed a bushy-tailed creature from his hands.
"One of 'em 's gonna bite you one day, Dr. Claire," Agnes warned in her mild Cajun accent. "Gonna bite the hand that feeds it, for sure."
"That will be the day I wring its tiny neck," Jack cautioned, wagging a finger at the squirrels.
Joe had cleared his throat and lowered himself into an oak chair well away from the squirrels. Agnes and Missy closed the door and let the two men have privacy. Jack had given him a sideways glance.
"You're specializing in American lit, Joe," Dr. Claire had said. "Why do you want to work with me? You know I specialize in Elizabethan authors."
"Yes," Joe had admitted, "but I read your book. I like the way you compare Shakespeare's themes and characters to modern novels."
Dr. Claire, who later insisted that Joe call him Jack, had seemed skeptical, which compelled Joe to continue.
"The way Faulkner incorporates Shakespearean tragedy in The Sound and the Fury, and the way Tennessee Williams makes his women seem like Lady Macbeth and Ophelia in A Street Car Named Desire."
After taking a bite of his ham and Swiss on rye, Jack fed a peanut to a frail squirrel and quietly mulled Joe's comment.
"I think I will learn a lot from you," Joe added feebly.
"What do you think?" asked Jack of the creature stealing food from his fingers. The indifferent old squirrel ignored the question as it furiously gnawed away the shell of the peanut.
Joe cleared his throat again. "Have you named them?"
Jack forced a smile. "That young couple on the bookshelf is Ophelia and Hamlet. They always eat together, but sometimes Ophelia looks a little melancholy."
"How 'bout the old guy on your desk?"
Jack chuckled. "Oh, my. That's Lear. Getting a bit feeble, I'm afraid. Almost can't make the leap to my desk."
"And his daughters?"
Excerpted from First Folio by Scott Evans Copyright © 2010 by Scott Evans. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I really enjoyed this fast paced mystery. It reminded me of Dan Brown's, "The Da Vinci Code." Though instead of messing with what's in the Bible, Scott Evans challenges the authorship of the next most sacred collection of books, the works of William Shakespeare. My head is still spinning.