Edward Marston - The Queens Head

[Nicholas Bracewell 1] (Missing Mystery #19)

Edward Marston

ISBN: 1-890208-45-0

Copyright © 2000

Poisoned Pen Press

(*)Author's Foreword

The Queen's Head came into existence when a discerning editor invited me to submit an idea for a historical mystery series, set against the background of the Elizabethan theater. It was a dream commission, bringing together three of my major passions--crime, history and drama. Since the first novel in the series was to come out in 1988, it seemed sensible to tie it in with the quatercentenary of the Spanish Armada, hence my choice of theme. Westfield's Men, the theater troupe that performs in the innyard of The Queen's Head in London, find themselves an unwitting link between a dead and a reigning queen.

The protagonist in the series is Nicholas Bracewell, a man whose upbringing an instincts make him a resourceful amateur sleuth. As the book holder, or book keeper, with Westfield's Men, he has responsibilities that go way beyond those of a modern stage manager and which make him an integral part of the company. If not a power behind the throne, he is the crucial figure behind the scenes. Yet the ever-dependable Nicholas is not the only hero. He would be the first to acknowledge that he is only part of a team and that, to some degree, Westfield's Men operate as a collective hero in the series.

Regular characters like Lawrence Firethorn, the ebullient actor-manager, Barnaby Gill, the resident clown and Edmund Hoode, the company's playwright, all contribute strongly in each adventure. It is Nicholas Bracewell who brings out the best in them and in his other colleagues, risking life and limb to keep his beloved company alive in the precarious world of Elizabethan theater. Fire, plague, censorship, Puritan enmity, and restrictive legislation are only some of the problems that Westfield's Men face on a daily basis. Their rivalry with another London company, Banbury's Men, can also be deadly.

The Queen's Head is the first stage of a journey that has taken Westfield's Men to all manner of places and through all kinds of perils. Whether they are forced to tour the provinces or caught up in municipal skullduggery, haunted by merry devils or threatened by a wanton angel, dogged by a laughing hangman or making a hazardous journey across Europe to perform at the Court of the Holy Roman Emperor, the company never gives up. Led by Nicholas Bracewell, they somehow find the strength and skills to survive each new emergency and to make sure that the show goes on.

The books have been enormous fun to research and write, none more so than The Queen's Head. If this is the first time you have met Westfield's Men, I hope that they amuse, entertain, provoke and mystify in equal measure and that you will be encouraged to follow their progress in the rest of the series.

Edward Marston


(*)Chapter One

The queen's head swung gently to and fro in the light breeze. It was an arresting sight. Wearing a coronet and pearls in red hair that was a mass of tight curls, she had a pale, distinguished face with a high forehead, fine nose and full lips. Her regal beauty had an ageless quality that was enhanced by a remarkable pair of eyes. Dark, shrewd and watchful, they managed to combine authority with femininity and--when the sun hit them at a certain angle--they even hinted at roguishness. Nobody who met her imperious gaze could fail to recognize her as Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England.

Bright colours had been used on the inn sign. Enough of the neck and shoulders was included to show that she was dressed in the Spanish fashion, with a round, stiff-laced collar above a dark bodice fitted with satin sleeves which were richly decorated with ribbons, pearls and gems. A veritable waterfall of pearls flowed from her neck and threatened to cascade down from the timber on which they were painted. The same opulence shone with vivid effect on the reverse side of the sign. Royalty was at its most resplendent.

London was the biggest, busiest and most boisterous city in Europe, a thriving community which had grown up in the serpentine twists of the River Thames and which was already thrusting out beyond its boundary walls. Poverty and wealth, stench and sweetness, anarchy and order, misery and magnificence were all elements in the city's daily life. From her high eminence in Gracechurch Street, the queen's head saw and heard everything that was going on in her beloved capital.

'Ned, that gown will need a stitch or two.'

'Yes, master.'

'You can sweep the stage now, Thomas.'

'The broom is ready in my hand, Master Bracewell.'

'George, fetch the rushes.'

'Where are they?'

'Where you will find them, lad. About it straight.'

'Yes, master.'


'It was not our fault, Nicholas.'

'We must speak about that funeral march.'

'Our cue was given too early.'

'That did not matter. It was the wrong music'

Nicholas Bracewell stood in the courtyard of The Queen's Head and took charge of the proceedings. Noon had just brought the morning's rehearsal to a close. The afternoon performance now loomed large and it threw the whole company into the usual state of panic. While everyone else was bickering, complaining, memorizing elusive lines, working on last minute repairs or dashing needlessly about, Nicholas was concentrating on the multifarious jobs that had to be done before the play could be offered to its audience. He was an island of calm in a sea of hysteria.

'I must protest most strongly!'

'It was only a rehearsal, Master Bartholomew.'

'But, Nicholas, my play was mangled!'

'I'm sure it will be far better in performance.'

'They ruined my poetry and cut my finest scene.'

'That is not quite true, Master Bartholomew.'

'It's an outrage!'

The book holder was an important member of any company but, in the case of Lord Westfield's Men, he had become absolutely crucial to the enterprise. Nicholas Bracewell was so able and resourceful at the job that it expanded all the time to include new responsibilities. Not only did he prompt and stage manage every performance from the one complete copy that existed of a play, he also supervised rehearsals, helped to train the apprentices, dealt with the musicians, cajoled the stagekeepers, advised on the making of costumes or properties, and negotiated for a play's licence with the Master of the Revels.

His easy politeness and diplomatic skills had earned him another role--that of pacifying irate authors. They did not get any more irate than Master Roger Bartholomew.

'Did you hear me, Nicholas?'

'Yes, I did.'

'An outrage!'

'You did sell your play to the company.'

'That does not give Lord Westfield's Men the right to debase by work!' shrieked the other, quivering with indignation. 'In the last act, your voice was heard most often. I did not write those speeches to be spoken by a

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