Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Playwrights, Spies, and Cryptic Engravings: Tower of the Five Orders by Deron R. Hicks

Julian slid the drawing across the table to Colophon. "It's a perfect copy of the crest on the inkwell."

She placed the drawing in the middle of the table. The image appeared to be a crest or coat of arms. It was in the shape of a shield: a bird and flowers.

"This could take a few weeks," Julian warned. "We need to get a copy of Pimbley's Dictionary of Heraldry, and there are several registries for ancient coats of arms. We may have to look at hundreds--maybe thousands...."

"Or," said Colophon, "we can Google it."

The search came back with about 3,940,000 results.

"Well, that should narrow it down a bit," said Julian.

A knock on the library door interrupted their discussion. Meg Letterford walked in carrying a tray of sandwiches.

"Thanks, Mom," said Colophon.

Meg placed the tray on the table beside the drawing. "Dare I ask what you're doing?"

Julian and Colophon looked at each other. "Well," said Colophon, "it's complicated."

"As long as it doesn't lead to another dangerous underground crypt, then I'm okay with it." Mom shot a look at Julian.  "Oh, one last thing," she said. Meg pointed at Julian's drawing. "I've spent time at Cambridge University and I'm certain that's the crest of Corpus Christi College."

In Deron Hicks' first book, Secrets of Shakespeare's Grave: The Shakespeare Mysteries, Book 1 (Letterford Mysteries,) twelve-year-old Colophon and her older cousin Julian had sleuthed out the cryptic clues to uncover a portfolio of unknown Shakespearean writings, thereby saving Letterford and Sons Publishing from a hostile takeover by the mendacious and unethical cousin Treemont Letterford. Colophon's father Mull Letterford had believed that his family's 400-year-old publishing house was safe in his hands for his generation. Stymied for the moment, however, Treemont Letterford wastes no time sinking the family fortunes and business by blackmailing "Shakespearean "experts" to declare the writings a certain forgery, sinking the venerable company's profits and allowing him to take over the business and the Manchester, Georgia, mansion of the American Letterford clan.

Defeated, the bookishly-named siblings, Colophon and her brother Case, prepare to leave the Letterford estate and move with their parents to London, into the old Letterford house. But Colophon remembers Julian's prediction that their findings, Shakespeare's lost portfolio and an old glass inkwell, might well be clues themselves to the storied treasure of their ancestor Miles Letterford. Examining the old inkwell which had sat for some time on her bookshelf, Colophon discerns through the tarnished top an inkling of markings that indeed seem to be leading them to additional clues at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge.

With the Bohemian Julian as her adult escort, Colophon follows the secret ciphers through the old buildings of Cambridge with many a close call until they manage to snitch Christopher Marlowe's Matriculation Quill from under the nose of its curmudgeonly Keeper. Decoding its engraved symbols leads the intrepid Colophon and Julian back into "another dangerous underground crypt" just as her mother had feared, this time following the long-bricked-over Fleet River through London's ancient sewers toward a secret room with Letterford's storied treasure inside.

Occasionally Colophon would catch a glimpse of sunlight filtering down through a drain. But for the most part, their journey was dark and cold. An entire city lay just above her head, she knew, yet she had never felt more isolated from the rest of the world. The air felt stale and undisturbed. And she could hear things. Things that scraped, skittered, and scratched just outside the beam of her flashlight.

But as the two cousins discover when they approach the hidden door, they are not the only Letterfords who have cracked the family code.

Deron Hicks' delightfully arcane mystery, Tower of the Five Orders: The Shakespeare Mysteries, Book 2 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) finds the courageous Colophon, her scholarly cousin Julian, and her technologically savvy brother Case again matching wits with the greedy and wicked Treemont to retain the ownership of Letterford and Sons. In settings which vary from wooded estate in Georgia to modern London and the hidden Elizabethan world in which the founder Miles Letterford and his friends Marlow and Shakespeare lived, this second of the Letterford Mysteries succeeds in continuing the deliciously shadowy and cryptic adventures of Colophon, a girl sleuth with one foot in the modern world and one foot in the sixteenth-century as she follows the dormant clues left for her by her esteemed ancestor. For readers who love arcane ciphers, centuries-old libraries, and dimly-lit stone caverns in a literary storyline, pair this one with its predecessor (see my 2012 review here) for some fine reading for a dark autumnal night.

True to its literary ambiance, Deron Hicks' appendix provides the neologisms, Shakespeare's own invented words, which head up each chapter, with a thumbnail quote from their sources in the plays, from As You Like It through The Tempest, and includes its own antique colophon, or publisher's mark and identification.

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