In Scott Evans’ new novel, “First Folio,” priceless handwritten manuscripts reveal that the most famous writer in the world — William Shakespeare — was a fraud, and that the true author of Shakespeare’s iconic plays actually was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.
The book is fiction, and the Bard hasn’t really been officially dethroned. But other than that, and “the fact that Joe (the main character) receives handwritten documents, which don’t exist, all other factual information is well-researched and true,” said Evans, a Davis author.
“There are few samples of Shakespeare’s handwriting, all of which are signatures on legal documents. The handwriting is pretty halting and poor. It doesn’t look like something an experienced writer would produce,” Evans said.
Evans explores this conundrum in “First Folio,” a literary mystery that he says fans of “The Da Vinci Code” will enjoy.
The main character is Joe Conrad, a professor at the fictional Central Lutheran University in Stockton, who lives in Davis. His mentor, Jack Claire, finds what seem to be authentic handwritten manuscripts of Shakespeare’s plays, along with a leather-bound copy of the First Folio, the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays.
Claire mails the documents to Conrad, “who is like a son to Claire,” Evans said. Claire is murdered shortly thereafter, and Conrad, confused as to why the documents were sent to him, seeks the scholarly advice of a retired Central Lutheran University professor, Jonathan “Smitty” Smythe, and a UC Berkeley scholar, Sylvia Williamson.
The script on the documents reveal neat, practiced handwriting — which differs significantly from the few surviving examples of Shakespeare’s handwriting.
Conrad and his colleagues work to authenticate the documents and sleuth out the true author. As they labor over the manuscripts, however, a lethal mercenary tracks them, willing to do anything to obtain the documents.
Evans began writing novels six years ago, when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. He also found himself with a little extra time, as the classes he was teaching at a community college were eliminated due to budget pressures.
“I decided that was the time to do it,” Evans said.
His goal with his novels is to simultaneously entertain and educate.
“I really like the murder mystery genre. I’m trying to make it more literary; more serious,” Evans said. “I want to teach more literature, like Shakespeare, that people may not read on their own.”
For example, in Evans’ first novel, “Tragic Flaws,” the main character borrows an idea from “Hamlet” to ensnare the antagonist of the tale.
“This is my second novel,” Evans said. ”They will be related, but they will also be readable as separate books.”
“Like me, Joe Conrad lives with his family in Davis,” Evans said. Local readers will enjoy the occasional references to real Davis locations: For instance, Conrad lives on 10th Street.
“But the book is also set in places all over the world,” Evans said.
Evans did some globe trotting himself while doing the extensive research the novel required. He had the opportunity to research at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., that Conrad and his colleagues visit. Evans had to go through an application process to be able to spend time there. He viewed items such as Edward de Vere’s Geneva Bible, which proved “very helpful” to his research.
The novel took more than four years to complete. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” Evans said.
Evans consulted 15 books, 20 magazine articles and 6 Shakespeare authorship conferences to fully research the novel. He presented a chapter of “First Folio” at a Houston Shakespeare conference.
Evans’ original plan was to write a novel about Shakespeare concluding that the Bard was the true author of his works. However, as he researched further, Evans came to believe that Shakespeare actually was one of the most unlikely candidates to author works such as “Macbeth” and “Romeo and Juliet.”
“When I started getting into it, it was overwhelming,” Evans said. “I had to pick and choose what worked best for the plot.”
When he is not working on a novel, Evans teaches writing at University of the Pacific in Stockton. He teaches freshman composition, as well as a course on crime, punishment and justice in society. “It’s an interesting, fun class to teach,” Evans said.
“What’s fun is that I get to talk about problems I face,” Evans said. “They know I’m struggling to write well, too.”
Evans also runs a writers’ group and a literary magazine.
“I wake up, brew a cup of coffee and go for a walk,” Evans said. “Then I write, or spend time polishing and editing.”
According to Evans, his regular commute to work has been “really helpful to the creative process.”
“I do a lot of thinking then,” Evans said.
Evans plans to write several more literary mystery novels.
Local residents can meet him at 3 p.m. Sunday at Atria Covell Gardens, 1111 Alvarado Ave. in Davis. Bistro 33, 226 F St., also will host a reading and reception from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, March 18, and Evans will be at The Avid Reader, 617 Second St., at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 25.
Meet the author
Who: Scott Evans, author of “First Folio”
When: 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Atria Covell Gardens, 1111 Alvarado Ave., Davis