Originally Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2013, 6:00 am
Last Updated: Feb. 11, 2013, 8:47 am

Alas, poor Richard; what might Gail say?

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By Don Wooten

Last Monday, two events, separated by time and distance, came together to jar some memories: the identification of a body unearthed in an Leicester, England, car park and the death of noted mystery author, Margaret Frazer. There is a strong link between the two.

The body was that of Richard III, the last English king of the House of York. He was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 and vilified by historians serving his successor, Henry VII. It was part of a campaign by King Henry to strengthen his hold on the monarchy, one which also included systematically eliminating every other claimant to the throne.

Sir (and saint) Thomas More joined the pack with a Machiavellian treatment of Richard and Shakespeare made the calumnies permanent by taking Tudor propaganda as the basis for his play, "Richard III." The leading role is an actor's dream, but an historian's dilemma. The Bard's entertaining villain is not the real Richard.

Let's go back to 1960. That's when the Genesius Guild decided to add Shakespeare to its annual summer schedule of Greek tragedy. Needing an appropriate stage, we acquired a flatbed-tractor unit from Deere & Co. and parked it in the enclosure that used to be on the south side of the Hauberg Civic Center. There, we constructed a traveling stage.

For performances in Lincoln Park, we drove it to the bottom of the natural amphitheater on the north edge of the property. Most of the audience sat on the hillside. We then took the plays on the road: to LeClaire Park in Davenport, to the Knox College campus, and to the Baker Park golf course in Kewanee. It was to the latter venue that Fred and Grace Brown brought their children, Gail and Fred Junior. For young Gail, it was a life-changing experience.

The next summer, Gail had her mother bring her to Rock Island's Lincoln Park to try out for the guild plays. I explained to her that, at 14, she might be a bit young to join the group. But she was not to be denied. We had already made an exception for the multi-talented Suzie Wells, so that rule was already crumbling. Gail made her debut in the Greek chorus.

As the seasons passed, she took on other roles, most notably the choragos in Euripides' "The Bacchae," a play of such searing intensity that the cast opted not to take a curtain call, lest it dilute the work's impact.

In 1968, when I played Richard, she appeared as Lady Anne. Her research into the play was a strong motive in her decision to spend a year in England, where she lived simply and studied the 15th century. After her return, she worked for a year as my research assistant for the Spectrum TV series; later married John Bacon, whom she met in the cast of "Antony and Cleopatra"; and left the area, finally settling in Minnesota.

Years later, she decided to write a mystery story set in the 15th century, a period she knew better than the 20th. She collaborated with Monica Pulver under the pen name, Margaret Frazer. Pulver contributed the first name; Gail selected her grandmother's surname. After the first two novels, Pulver withdrew from the partnership and Gail began writing alone.

The first 17 books featured Dame Frevisse, member of a Benedictine convent. She was one of the few nuns allowed to interact with the outside world. Using that freedom and investigative skills, she functioned as a medieval detective. Next, came the Actor Joliffe and his troupe of players, central figure in seven further mysteries. The first in that series, "A Play of Isaac", was dedicated to the Genesius Guild, "without whom, none."

In 2012, she changed subjects with "A Circle of Witches." This season, she started working on a novel involving her initial inspiration, Richard III. She chose "Never Remember Eden" as its title. I want to read it, but won't have the opportunity. After battling cancer for 20 years, Gail's weakened body finally succumbed to the flu Monday night. The book was left unfinished.

Gail was twice nominated for the Edgar Award, the crime writer's Oscar, and was widely praised for the meticulous accuracy of her narratives. While visiting her some years ago, son David asked how she knew so much about the remote past. She showed him her huge reference library, then went to a file cabinet, opened a drawer, and said, "Name a date."

Now that Richard III's body has been recovered and positively identified, and a reconstruction made of his face, perhaps historians may be ready to revisit his record. The theater-going public regards him as a man who took delight in his villainy. Those of us who have studied the part and his history regard him as a victim of character assassination.

Richard was fiercely loyal to his family and, during his short reign, displayed a strong sympathy and sense of justice for the poor. Still, who ordered the murder of the princes in the tower? Was it really Richard? Queen Margaret? Henry VII? Some functionary trying to win favor? I'd like to know.

But what I'd really like is Margaret Frazer's take on the subject.
Don Wooten of Rock Island is a former state senator and veteran broadcaster; donwooten@qconline.com.