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Early in Shakespeare's play, Richard, Duke of Gloucester vows that since he's too deformed to "prove a lover," he'll become a villain.

The hunchback rolls his eyes, licks his chops, and practically drools blood. Then, as if he studied at the Michael Corleone School of Problem-Solving, Richard systematically eliminates everyone in his path to the crown, including the young sons of George, Duke of Clarence, in the Tower of London.

It's a savage portrait, " Richard Crookback, royal criminal," painted by a budding author for a budding actor - Richard Burbage - both eager to expand their chops.

But is it fact or fiction?

Richard III was the last of the Plantagenet kings. When the Tudors came into power, their historians played fast and loose with the facts.

Sir Thomas More, the "man for all seasons," left behind an unfinished history of Richard III (possibly written by his mentor, John Morton, who loathed the Plantagenets). More/Morton have Richard plotting the deaths of King Edward, his sons, Clarence, his sons, and various others. The text is the first to make these accusations, which had no basis even in rumor.

Raphael Hollinshed's Chronicles expand the infamy. More gave Richard crooked shoulders and a withered arm. Hollinshed grows him a hunchback and makes him even more power-mad.

Like More and other historians of the time (and since), Hollinshed used history for moral examples and down home propaganda. Concrete specifics be damned.

Shakespeare, who may have read Hollinshed and More, wanted to write a gripping story and a new kind of theatrical villain. So he draped their Richard III in a literary tradition: the comic Vice, the "devil-clown" able to make the false more appealing than the true. Don't take him seriously and you'll dive-bomb to hell.

In case anyone's missing the point, the Bard ladles on the epithets: "poisonous toad," "foul hunchback'd toad," "bottled spider," "abortive, rooting hog."

This portrait reigned supreme until the 20th century.

There had always been nay-sayers (among them the Richard III Society, which has over 4000 members). And in 1951, Josephine Tey wrote The Daughter of Time, which casts grave doubts on Shakespeare and his sources.

Alan Grant', an inspector for Scotland Yard, believes he can judge a person by looks alone. Stuck in a hospital with a broken leg, he sees a portrait of Richard III that looks nothing like the mangled reptile who ordered the deaths of innocent children.

Since he'll be bedridden for several weeks, Grant decides to sleuth the murder of the princes. As friends bring him documents, he unpeels layer after layer of fabrication and finds not a monster but a complex ruler, beloved of the common people. Richard III had faults aplenty but didn't order the boys to be slain (future King Henry VII had more to gain).

The book turns historical analysis into a detective story with surprising revelations. The title's from Sir Francis Bacon: "Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority."

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