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Two novels about murder — in the throne room and in the kitchen. 

Variations on a Theme

John Updike has made staggering contributions in every conceivable literary genre, having written novels, poetry, essays, plays and memoirs. Despite his formidable repertoire, he has been able to maintain a firm distance from the more stilted, formal literary establishment. In many books, he sets forth the unorthodox theme that marital discord is the product of an innate desire to be free from the constraints of social convention.

This discontent is apparent in his new novel "Gertrude and Claudius" (Knopf, $22.95), in which the reader revisits the events that led to the tragedy of Hamlet. In this book, the author extracts portions from three renditions of the Hamlet legend to project a foundation for Gertrude and Claudius to commit their inevitable act of impropriety. In the various sections of Updike's novel, the names of the characters change depending upon the legendary version the author is using.

Part One of the novel is based on the Danish legend of Hamlet entitled the "Historica Danica." In this version, Gertrude is Gerutha, a headstrong, untamed, king's daughter, who reluctantly submits to her father's choice of a husband, Horendil, a warrior who manifests outward savagery but possesses inward virtue. Horendil's younger brother, Feng (the future Claudius), is a glib diplomat and a roving ambassador in the kingdom, whose travel experiences in exotic lands enthrall Gerutha. The principal court official, Corambus (later Polonius) harbors great paternal affection for Gerutha but doesn't warn her of the potential danger in her growing infatuation with Feng.

In the course of the three parts, the reader will witness the birth of Prince Hamlet, his tendency toward religious skepticism and rejection of the piety associated with the throne, the wooing of Gertrude by Claudius and the resulting tragedy. Gertrude, instead of being liberated from tradition, finds herself even more psychologically imprisoned, especially following the regicide and usurpation of the Danish throne.

Updike's prose evokes a powerful poetic image of both Gertrude and Claudius and their deep passion for each other. Shakespeare is not rewritten but is observed in a refreshing way from the perspective of Gertrude and Claudius, whose desire to escape from a stultifying morality compromises not only the bonds within the royal family, but the throne of Denmark itself. "Gertrude and Claudius" should be an intriguing acerbic read for both Shakespeare buffs and readers with only a fleeting familiarity with the Bard.

— Bruce Simon



You've gotta have a gimmick, and crime novelist Diane Mott Davidson certainly has one. The gimmick has served her well through 2 million copies of her eight books, with "Tough Cookie" (Bantam Books, $23.95) being her ninth — right on the heels of her New York Times bestseller "Prime Cut."

If the titles haven't given it all away, here's her gimmick: Her amateur-sleuth protagonist, Goldy Bear Schulz, is a caterer. And to further define the niche Davidson calls her own, she includes Goldy's recipes throughout the books — with an index to the recipes in the back.

In her latest adventure, Goldy's home catering kitchen has been closed down by the Colorado health inspectors because it doesn't have the proper drains. But through the efforts of a good friend, she's got an assignment on the local PBS station to present a limited-run cooking show from a mountain-top ski lodge.

Right after she shows her TV audience how to prepare Mexican egg rolls with guacamole, crab cakes with a funky sauce, and iced ginger snaps, however, things start to go downhill — as in skiing. An old acquaintance is found dead on the slopes (the ginger snap recipe on page 38 looks tasty, though), and Goldy is on the case.

It's tempting to describe Davidson's book as "delicious" or "yummy" or to say that the author has found "a recipe for success," and those descriptions may be true — if a bit exaggerated.

It is safe to say, however, that Davidson has found a niche, despite her thin plotting and uneven writing, that will attract a certain audience. It may be smaller than, for example, John Grisham's, but it's an audience that does buy books, if only for the recipes.

— Don Dale
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