There's Shakespeare in North Side author's 'Blood'

North Side author Kathleen George
North Side author Kathleen George
Photo by Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
| Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, 7:20 p.m.

Kathleen George cannot avoid the most persistent and enduring literary influence in her life. The spirit of Shakespeare hovers over her work, even as George admits that being mentioned in any context with The Bard is pointless.

“You just know you can't (live up to that ideal),” says George, who will appear Feb. 27 at the University Store on Fifth in Oakland to promote her new novel, “A Measure of Blood.” “It's only Shakespeare who could write those unbelievable plots.”

Despite that daunting presence, the North Side resident and theater professor at the University of Pittsburgh has done quite well. George's novel “The Odds” was a finalist for an Edgar Award, the mystery genre's highest honor, in 2010. In a series of seven novels, she's developed a remarkable cast of characters and uses all the nooks and crannies of Pittsburgh as scenery.

And yet, it's Shakespeare, always, who provides the baseline for the diversity and layers of complexity in George's narratives.

“I was really influenced by a teacher (Bert O. States, a playwright who taught at Pitt), who pointed out in every play that Shakespeare gives you a moral prism of characters,” George says. “So, you have Bianca, Desdemona and Emelia in ‘Othello,' and one is a prostitute, one teases about how she'd sleep around, and one is virginal, although she's married. Each play has the same issue through a moral prism, and I was very influenced by the way that works.”

In “A Measure of Blood,” a young boy witnesses the murder of his mother. Homicide detective Richard Christie helms the investigation, and true to his past form, immediately starts to micro-manage the detectives and the boy's future. Christie uses his influence to send the child to foster parents he knows, and the results are less than stellar, especially when the killer — who thinks the boy is his son — re-enters the picture.

George says that Christie “made a hasty decision and got hurt in this,” but, again, a Shakespearean mechanism is at work. Christie's lineage, his actions, have roots in characters who were used for the same purpose.

“Shakespeare always has somebody onstage who plots,” she says. “Don Pedro plotting in ‘Much Ado About Nothing,' the Duke in ‘Measure for Measure.' There's always a surrogate author onstage. ... The murder happens; Christie doesn't cause that to happen. But after that, the part of the plot that isn't investigation does have that element to it.”

While “A Measure of Blood” will be familiar to readers via the characters and George's intricate plotting, there are some subtle departures. It's her first multi-word title (not counting “The Odds”) since a 1999 short-story collection, “The Man in the Buick.”

It's also her first book published by Mysterious Press, the noted publisher of authors including P.D. James, Donald Westlake, Ed McBain and Elmore Leonard. Otto Penzler, the proprietor the Mysterious Bookshop in the Tribeca section of New York, founded the press in 1975. When George was shopping for a home for “A Measure of Blood,” she initially wasn't certain if Mysterious Press was a good home — until she spoke to Penzler.

“Otto likes a lot of things that aren't wildly plotted,” she says. “He has a large range of tastes, and I'm writing a quieter book than some mysteries are. The fact that he likes the quieter kind of book is interesting to me.”

Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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