We’re probably all familiar with the character Faust from classical German folklore, who is a scholar who trades his soul for vast knowledge and earthly pleasures. The tale has been told and retold countless times over the centuries, perhaps most popularly by Christopher Marlowe and Goethe. The concept of a man willing to sell his own soul is a wonderful premise that Anne C. Perry has revisited, crafting a story that offers a retelling of the final chapters of Marlowe’s own life and blending it with the plot of Marlowe’s play, “Doctor Faustus.”
Mild plot spoilers follow.
THE CORNERSTONE opens in Elizabethan England, with the historical occultist John Dee and playwright Christopher Marlowe making a bargain with a witch to trap a banshee in a rock to function as a source of magical power. Fast forward several centuries to modern-day Atlanta as a local community theater troupe prepares to put on a production of Marlowe’s play, “The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus,” about a man who has sold his soul to the devil.
As you probably know, Marlowe was a real historical figure with a genuinely mysterious life who died tragically under unexplained circumstances. I don’t want to totally wreck Perry’s story here, so I will only say that, as one might surmise, Marlowe did not die in the universe of THE CORNERSTONE. Instead, he lives on. The mysterious disappearance of the lead actor in the theater troupe invites an investigation by Claire, an EMT by day and theater crewperson by night. Where would we be without amateur plucky sleuths to ferret out all the mysteries that the police don’t care to investigate? Claire enlists the aid of a few of her fellow thespians; they soon discover that there’s a great deal of nefarious goings-on in the archetypical old theater basement.
My review of THE CORNERSTONE is mixed. There were significant elements I enjoyed – the essential premise is very good after all – but there were a number of other elements I didn’t care for or thought there was room for considerable improvement. For example, I liked the premise initially when it seemed that it simply involved an individual who had made a Faustian bargain and a banshee trapped in a rock. But the resolution of the novel came out of nowhere and seemed muddled, so I was left somewhat disappointed. I actually think that there was too much going on here: the supernatural elements simply piled on to too great a degree, with John Dee, Christopher Marlowe, demons, a witch, a banshee, time travel, and immortals all thrown into the mix. I should also note that THE CORNERSTONE emphasizes plot over characterization and, especially setting. The story is nominally set in Atlanta, but no appreciable sense of place ever develops; THE CORNERSTONE could just as easily have been set in London, for example. I had to keep reminding myself that the present-day portions of the novel were taking place in Atlanta, but it didn’t seem to matter much. And while I liked the protagonist, Claire the EMT, I must admit that she was bland. Her backstory was interesting, but she herself was a bit of a cipher. A relatively weak protagonist was simply overwhelmed by the plot and the character of Marlowe.
Recommended, though with some reservations. It’s not at all a bad novel, it’s just not a great one. I wish I could be more enthusiastic about THE CORNERSTONE because it does contain some nifty elements, but the whole feels much more lackluster than the sum of its parts.
Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers