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September 16, 1990|DON G. CAMPBELL

The crisp nights of fall are on us, and there's a hunger for an equal amount of tang in our reading fare--variety, a mix of high adventure, romance and intrigue. And the popular fiction hitting the market next month is tailor-made for it.

How about another fascinating journey back in time in the skilled hands of George Garrett, our resident expert on Elizabethan history? An old hand in such matters, Garrett's earlier works included "Death of the Fox," a riveting novel built around the life of Sir Walter Raleigh, and "The Succession," which re-created the events surrounding the succession of James I to the throne of Queen Elizabeth.

In his latest foray into the gusty world of the now-aging monarch, Entered From the Sun (Doubleday: $19.95; 368 pp.), Garrett reopens one of the most intriguing and durable mysteries of that era: the events surrounding the death of Christopher Marlowe, poet, and, in the eyes of many, England's second greatest playwright--cut down at age 29 at the height of his career in a barroom brawl that was as shrouded with unanswered questions then as it is today. Given the opportunity to achieve full maturity, would Marlowe's talents have overshadowed Shakespeare's--an upstart who wasn't even published until the year of Marlowe's death in 1593? We'll never know.

In "Entered From the Sun," Garrett gives us two wildly disparate protagonists, Capt. William Barfoot and Joseph Hunnyman who, quite independently of each other, are on a common mission: Both have been hired by political groups to reopen the events surrounding Marlowe's death four years earlier. For entirely different reasons, the self-defense acquittal of Marlowe's killer, Ingram Frizer, leaves both groups dissatisfied.

These men are night and day: Barfoot, a battle-scarred military veteran with a source of income that remains mysterious but who is a man you definitely wouldn't want to meet in a darkened alley, is a no-nonsense, dangerous man with a long history of undercover intelligence work; Hunnyman, in sharp contrast, is a comely actor and opportunist who has been playing the theatrical circuit on village greens since, as a pre-pubescent (as was the custom of the time), he played the role of women on stage.

Living by his wits, and the kindness of ladies attracted to his extraordinary good looks, Hunnyman seems ill-matched against the formidable Barfoot except for one major asset: He knows, intimately, the theatrical circle in which Marlowe moved.

The catalyst here is the lovely Alysoun, the shrewd village girl who has managed to get herself wed to an aging printer catering to the theatrical trade. By the time the printer has conveniently died, Alysoun has managed to learn his craft well and has become, herself, the leading London purveyor of the folios, pamphlets and tracts produced by the Elizabethan artists.

Alysoun needs Hunnyman as a distributor for her work outside London--and for more earthy reasons. Hunnyman needs Alysoun both for his investigative work and for the same earthy reasons. Barfoot needs Alysoun because of a presumably damning pamphlet she inherited from her husband tying Barfoot in with Papal underground activities.

This is a sprightly, deft narrative in which you can smell and feel the rambunctious London of the 1590s with all of its bawdiness and its endless political and religious intrigues. Was Marlowe, indeed, murdered in cold blood? If so, whose hand was behind it? Garrett is a tireless historic researcher and, in Marlowe, he's picked a bigger-than-life subject: a man who was, indeed, heavily involved in the British Intelligence service to the extent that the Queen's Privy Council (for unspecified services to the Crown) intervened in his behalf to obtain for him his master's degree from Cambridge.

In Hunnyman and Barfoot, Garrett has created two swashbuckling and unforgettable post-mortem private eyes moving skillfully through the back roads of 16th-Century London that each knows so well.

In a fast-forward in time, we now go to contemporary, backwoods Georgia for another of Anne Rivers Siddons' perceptive insights into the Southern mind-set. Her latest, King's Oak (Harper & Row: $19.95; 576 pp.), is a worthy and highly readable follow-up to last year's well-received "Peachtree Road."

Here we have Diana (Andy) Calhoun and her 8-year-old daughter Hilary--each on her distinctive rebound from one of those story-book romances and weddings that has gone wildly awry: Andy's marriage to a socially prominent young doctor who turns out to be both on drugs and is a closet wife-beater. Licking their collective wounds, Andy and Hilary, under the guidance of one of Andy's old college roommates, settle down in a cozy house in the woods near the small town of Pemberton, where Andy obtains public-relations work with a small junior college.

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