A legendary curse,
A witch-haunted king,
An ancient blade,
And all-too-modern murder
When Kate Stanley heads to Scotland to mount a new production of Macbeth at the foot of Dunsinnan Hill – the stronghold of the real King Macbeth – it doesn’t take long for the legendary curse on Shakespeare’s evil-ridden play to stir. A girl appears dead on the hilltop and then disappears again. An ancient blade goes missing. A trench is filled with blood. And a mysterious tarot card leads Kate into Birnam Wood, where she finds a local woman ritually murdered in circumstances that suggest pagan sacrifice.
With Kate marked as both suspect and future victim, she and Ben Pearl race to discover an early version of Shakespeare’s play, said to contain actual rituals of witchcraft and forbidden knowledge. However much Kate would like to dismiss such rituals as superstition, someone else appears willing to kill for them – and for the cursed manuscript said to be Shakespeare’s darkest secret.
“Thrill after thrill…This lively and fact-filled novel would do nicely for a rainy day at the beach.”
—The Washington Post
“A superbly plotted mystery. Carrell’s Kate Stanley is likable, nervy and absolutely brilliant. The supporting characters are clearly defined, the plot ruthlessly neat and rife with witchcraft, murder and pagan rituals. The overall air of evil is relentless. Plan to drag it to lunch, dinner and bed until you reach the pitch-perfect conclusion.”
—RT Book Reviews
“About as much fun as you can have with a book of magic and murder.”
“Exceptionally captivating… even for those readers who shunned Shakespeare in school”’
Listen to Jennifer
“Arizona Spotlight,” Arizona Public Media April 9, 2010 Interview by Mark McLemore
Excerpt: Chapter One (Kate Goes to Scotland)
It’s the oldest temptation. Not gold or the power it can buy, not love, not even the deep, drumming fires of lust: What we coveted first was knowledge. Not just any knowledge, either, but forbidden, more-than-mortal knowledge, as seductive and treacherous as a will-o’-the-wisp glimmering like unearthly fruit amid dark branches.
At least, that’s the tale that Genesis suggests. Not that I believe everything the Bible says. But it’s a good story, and I love stories. Besides, whether or not knowledge is the oldest temptation, it’s beyond doubt one of the most dangerous. Spellbinding in the full, old sense of the word. That much I can swear to. I’ve felt the pull of it myself and come closer than I like to admit to being lured into the abyss.
For me, it was a voice, low and musical, that first enthralled me; at least, that’s how I remember it. I can see her still, crossing to a tall window, throwing back curtains of pale blue silk embroidered with Chinese dragons, opening the casement to the chill Scottish night. The sharp scent of pines swept through the room, stirring the silk, so that the dragons seemed to writhe and coil around her.
Lady Nairn was nearing seventy, her face lined with the fine-china crackling of very fair skin in old age. Awash in moonlight, with her hands thrust deep into the pockets of her jacket, a gauzy scarf at her neck, and hair of the palest gold swept up in a graceful French twist, she seemed to be shining with a light of her own.
“It’s one of the Sidlaws,” she mused, staring out the window at the hill that dominated the landscape. A strangely shaped hill sitting apart from its fellows, capped with a turret-like top. “Law, from Old English hlaew, meaning hill, mountain, or mound, and also the hollow places inside them, like caves or barrows. And sid, from the Gaelic sidhe”—which she pronounced like she. “The Good Folk,” she said without turning. “The fairies…It’s a fairy hill.”
She was tall, taller than me, and still imposing—not someone you expected to hear musing about fairies.
She shrugged slightly, as if brushing off my thoughts. “People have disappeared from it, from time to time. Caught up by the Good Folk riding out on one of their hunts and swept off to feast in enchanted halls where time passes differently, and the golden air is laced with laughter and song. Most never return. Those who do come back touched. Fairy-stricken, as it’s said around here. That’s what the old legends say, at any rate.” She glanced around. “Not the gossamer-winged flower mites the Victorians liked to draw, mind you. The Scottish fairies, I’m talking about. Sometimes confused with the weird sisters or with witches—but not hags, as Shakespeare makes them. In Scotland, the fairies are bright and beautiful and fey. Dangerous.”
It struck me suddenly that standing there silvered with moonlight, she looked like one of them herself.
“We have one rule in this house. Don’t go up the hill alone.”
I’d met her for the first time earlier that evening. It was Athenaide who engineered it, of course; who else?
Athenaide Dever Preston was a small, white-haired woman with an outsized personality more in keeping with the expanse of her ranch than with the diminutive scale of her person. The ranch encompassed a wide swathe of southwestern New Mexico; she lived there in an improbable palace modeled on Hamlet’s Elsinore, concealed within a ghost town by the name of Shakespeare. Since the death of her cousin Rosalind Howard, once my mentor at Harvard, Athenaide had decided that I needed a family and that she was the best candidate for the job.
That morning, the phone had pulled me from a deep blanket of sleep in my flat in London.
“I have a friend who wants to meet you,” she said.
“Athenaide?” I’d croaked, sitting up. I peered at the clock. “It’s five A.M.
“I don’t mean at this instant, mija. Tonight. Dinner. Are you busy?”
All week, I’d been looking forward to a rendezvous with Chopin at my piano, a velvety glass of cabernet, and maybe later some mindless TV. But I owed Athenaide more than I could ever count up. “No,” I said reluctantly.
“Not even with the redoubtable Mr. Benjamin Pearl?”
I swallowed hard against a pang of irritation. Ben Pearl and I had met two years before, trying to outrun a killer while tracking down one of Shakespeare’s lost plays—an experience that might as well have been a lightning bolt fusing us together. At first, we’d met whenever we could, with a fizz and sparkle that felt like champagne and fireworks. For a week or ten days, we’d be as inseparable as we were insatiable. But then one career or the other would come calling, pulling us down separate paths. In the end, the strain was too great. Six months earlier, we’d parted ways for good, but Athenaide stubbornly refused to absorb that fact.
“Ah well,” she clucked. “As some bright young thing once said, the course of true love never did run smooth. Now write this down: Boswell’s Court, off Castle Hill.”
I was halfway through scribbling out the address when I stopped. London had no Castle Hill that I knew of. “You mean Parliament Hill? Tower Hill?”
“No, I mean Castle Hill, mija. Edinburgh.”
“Edinburgh?” My uncaffeinated voice cracked.
“How far is that from London—three hundred miles?” she sniffed. “Wouldn’t get you from the ranch up to Santa Fe. A jaunt, not a journey.”
“Boswell’s Court at eight thirty,” she said firmly. “There’s a train from King’s Cross at three thirty. A ticket will be waiting for you. Gets in at quarter past eight, I’m told. Just enough time to get up the hill.”
“Bon appétit, Katharine. Lady Nairn is quite possibly the most glamorous person I know. You’ll have fun.” Laughter burbling through the phone, she hung up.
I stared at the phone in mute disbelief as its blue glow faded to darkness. So much for Chopin and Project Runway. I collapsed back in the bed with a groan that sputtered into laughter. Athenaide, whose parents had been costume designers for the likes of Bette Davis and Grace Kelly, and who had since made herself a billionaire, had spent her life running in glamorous circles. If this woman was at the pinnacle of Athenaide’s league, she was way out of mine.
After a few minutes, I threw back the covers and padded toward the kitchen and coffee. I’d signed up for Athenaide’s ride—or at least failed to throw myself off. I might as well enjoy it. Even without the redoubtable Mr. Benjamin Pearl.
By the time the train pulled into Edinburgh, darkness had long since fallen. Across the wide boulevard of Princes Street, the New Town paraded away in neat, if rain-swept, Georgian elegance. On the other side of the station, the medieval town jostled stubbornly up a steep hill, crowding toward the castle perched atop its summit in brooding golden defiance against the night.
Minutes later, I was in the back of a taxi winding up the hill, the street a dark chasm between tall houses of gray stone slick with damp. Just before the buildings fell away into the open space in front of the castle, the taxi drew to a stop. “Boswell’s Court,” the driver said, pointing to an open doorway.
Overhead, a placard like an old-fashioned inn sign glistened in the rain, sporting two goats rampant and a leering devil’s head above gilded letters that spelled out THE WITCHERY.
Beneath this, a low stone archway led through to a small courtyard. At the far end sat a little wooden house dominated by a great black door; just inside, a wide stair led down into an opulent fantasia on a Jacobean palace. Mute courtiers hunted stags across tapestries, heavy furniture swelled with dark carving, and, everywhere, candles flickered in iron stands that looked to have been rifled from either cathedrals or dungeons.
Making my way through the restaurant in the wake of the hostess, I wound toward a back corner. Quite possibly the most glamorous person I know, Athenaide had said, but through some trick of the shadows and flickering light, I did not see her until I was very close. And then I found myself face-to-face with a legend.
“L-Lady Nairn?” I’d stammered in confusion.
“You must be Kate Stanley,” she’d said, rising. She extended her hand. “Yes, I’m Lady Nairn. Better known as Janet Douglas,” she added with a disarming smile. “Once upon a very long time ago.”
Janet Douglas had once had beauty to make Helen of Troy burn with envy. In the 1950s, she’d had a meteoric acting career, coming to the world’s attention as Viola, the silver-tongued heroine of Twelfth Night. After that, she’d made five or six films in quick succession, all of them classics. But it was her live performance of Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare’s fiend-like queen, in London’s West End, that had seared her face into the consciousness of a generation. If Lady Macbeth had been her greatest role, it was also her last. In the audience at the premiere, a Scottish lordling had fallen in love with her—nothing unusual in itself. What set his passion apart was that she returned it. A month later, she’d abruptly left stage and screen to marry him. From that day forward, her disappearance from the world’s stage had been more mysterious and complete than any other since Greta Garbo’s.
Yet here she was, shaking my hand with an amused look on her face. “I’ve been looking forward to this moment for a long time,” she said, her voice just as I remembered it from films and interviews, husky for a woman, with a honeyed golden timbre. “I saw your Cardenio. And your Hamlet.”
The plays I’d directed at London’s Globe Theatre.
Disbelief jangled through my bones. Janet Douglas had been in the audience at the Globe, and nobody noticed? In London, tabloid capital of the universe?
But then, nobody seemed to be noticing her here, either. I glanced around. Not a single diner or waiter appeared to have registered her presence, needling our table with sidelong glances and surreptitious whispers.
And then I saw that I was wrong. From a booth across the room where he sat alone, one man gazed steadily in our direction. I’d noticed him as I walked in; an impression of height and dark hair had made me think, for a fleeting instant, that he was Ben. I’d stopped and glanced back, but his face was thin, with a long, patrician nose and eyes so pale they might have been silver; he was nobody I knew. Now he sat staring in our direction, a half smile playing on his mouth, but there was no amusement in his eyes—only something feral and hungry that had nothing to do with food.
If Lady Nairn noticed, she gave no inkling of it. “Thank you for coming such a long way, on an old woman’s whim.”
I smiled, thinking of Athenaide’s acid tongue: A jaunt, not a journey.
“I’d like you to meet my granddaughter. Lily MacPhee. Though perhaps I should say I want her to meet you.” She spread her hands in mock dismay. “Fifteen going on twenty-five. She’s at rehearsal at the moment, but I’m to walk up and collect her after dinner.…She’s had a hard year of it, as have I. Her mother—my daughter, Elizabeth—and dad were killed in a car crash six months ago.”
A jagged sorrow ripped through the universe. I laid my spoon down; it was shaking. “I lost my parents at about her age,” I said carefully. What was wrong with me? That grief was fifteen years old, yet it had washed over me with the raw intensity of newness.
Lady Nairn nodded. “Athenaide told me. It’s one reason I pushed for this meeting.”
“And the other?”
She sighed. “It’s been a gloomy year in the Nairn household. Our own annus horribilis, I suppose. I also lost my husband recently.”
It dawned on me that she was wearing her black silk dress as if it were armor. “I’m sorry,” I said.
Those famous turquoise eyes grew bright, but she did not look away. “It’s not well known, but Angus—my husband—spent his life collecting all kinds of flotsam and jetsam to do with…well, with the Scottish Play.”
Macbeth, she meant. In the theatrical world, there was a strong taboo against naming it. The Scottish Play, the Plaid Play, even MacDaddy and MacBeast, it was called—but somehow it surprised me that forty years after she’d walked away from the theater, the worldly woman sitting across from me would indulge in the old superstition.
“He was fascinated by both the historical king and Shakespeare’s play,” she went on. “Anything to do with the story. Including, I’m afraid, me.” She glanced down with a self-deprecatory smile. When she raised her eyes again, though, they were dark with worry. “I sometimes wonder whether the curse is clinging to me.”
I frowned. In the theater, the spiraling evil of Shakespeare’s witch-haunted tragedy is held to be so strong that it cannot be contained by the frail walls of the stage but spills over into reality. By long tradition, it may not be quoted within a theater beyond what is necessary for rehearsal and performance. Even the play’s title and its lead characters’ names are forbidden. Lady M, she is, while her husband is the Scottish King. Or just the King and the Queen, as if no other royalty, imagined or real, matter. There are elaborate rites to exorcise the ill luck of violating that taboo.
Anthropologically, I found it intriguing. Practically, I found it absurd and even irritating. “I’m sorry. I can’t believe that.”
“No.” She sighed. “Nor do I, most of the time.” She took a sip of wine. “We’d been planning to put his collection on exhibit. I’d like to go ahead with it, as a memorial of sorts. And I’d like your help.” I shifted uncomfortably. “Sounds like you’d be better off with a historian. Or a curator. Someone from the British Museum, maybe.”
She shook her head. “Not that kind of exhibit.” Her voice slid into the cadence of poetry. “How dull it is to pause, to make an end, to rust unburnished, not to shine in use.…I want Angus’s collection burnished, you might say, in performance. In a production of Macbeth. And I want you to direct.”
In the midst of a sip of wine, I spluttered and set down the glass.
“I haven’t yet set a date,” she was saying. “But it’s to be a one-off, by invitation only, at Hampton Court. Sybilla Fraser has signed on as Lady M. And Jason Pierce has agreed to play the King.”
I knew Sybilla by sight; everybody did. She was the U.K.’s latest “it” girl, a rising star—or diva-in-training, said some—with deep golden skin and dark golden hair that cascaded around her in luxurious ringlets. Even her eyes were amber, as aloof and inscrutable as a lioness’s. Jason, though, I knew personally. He cultivated the aura of an Australian bad-boy film star, but he was a more serious actor than he liked to admit, with a hankering for proving his dramatic chops onstage, through Shakespeare. I’d directed him as both Hamlet and Cardenio, and both times, he’d often seemed more like my nemesis than my colleague.
I raised an eyebrow, and Lady Nairn sighed. “He’s the inveterate philanderer, you know—”
“Epic,” I interjected.
“But as I understand it, she’s the one who’s already got someone new on the line. With luck, they’ll channel their tension into the fire and ice between Macbeth and his lady.”
“And without luck?”
“Free fireworks, I suppose.”
“So, Jason and Sybilla—”
“And myself,” said Lady Nairn. I did a double take. “One last time,” she went on, “I mean to take the stage. Not as the Queen, obviously. At least, not the Scottish Queen. Bit past the expiry date for that.” She set her wineglass down with a small click. “I mean to play Hecate, queen of witches.”
So withered, and so wild in their attire, Shakespeare had written of his hags, that look not like the inhabitants of the earth, and yet are on it.
“Hecate doesn’t suit you,” I said suddenly.
“A backhanded compliment if ever there was one,” said Lady Nairn with a smile.
“Athenaide told me that you’re the most glamorous person she knows.”
“Did she now?” She raised one brow. “‘Glamour’ is an old Scots word for magic. In particular, the power to weave webs of illusion. All was delusion, nought was truth, as Sir Walter Scott put it.” This entire evening was beginning to feel like a delusion. Janet Douglas was returning to the stage in Macbeth? And she wanted me to direct?
“Why me?” I blurted out. “You could have anyone you ask.”
“I’m asking you. Or do you know another director with expertise in occult Shakespeare?”
Hell and damnation, I thought. So that’s it. What now seemed like a lifetime ago, I had written a dissertation on that subject, by which I meant the codes and clues that various people believed were hidden in the Bard’s works. The twisting meanings of that small word, “occult,” it seemed, would haunt me as long as I lived.
“Lady Nairn, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to disappoint, but by ‘occult’ I mean—”
She waved me off. “You mean the old sense of the word: hidden, obscured, secret. Not magical. Yes, I know. I’ve listened to your interviews. But it’s not magic I want you for.” She leaned forward. “I told you that my husband collected anything and everything to do with Macbeth. Well, a week or ten days before we lost him, he grew tense and excited in a way that meant one thing. He was closing in on a find.”
Somewhere within, a small seed of misgiving sprouted warily into life. “What kind of find?”
She sat back, eyeing me in silence. Then she rose from her chair. For a moment, her hand rested lightly on my shoulder. “Come to Dunsinnan.”
I didn’t recognize the word.
“Better known as Dunsinane. Macbeth’s castle of evil. Surely you remember that,” she said with an elusive smile. “I live there.” Turning abruptly, she headed for the stairs.
Knowledge, the oldest temptation. Caught in the tug of curiosity, I rose and followed her out.
Copyright © 2010 by Jennifer Lee Carrell
Reading Group Guide
Find an interview with suggested discussion questions HERE
Sample the Audiobook
Read by Katherine Kellgren (Penguin Audio, 2010)