The Mystery of Christopher Marlowe

Book Review of Tamburlaine Must Die” by Louise Welsh.

54819-tamburlaine-must-die300During the Elizabethan era, Christopher Marlowe was a famous and popular playwright, but today when we think of that time, practically the only writer that comes to mind is Shakespeare. One reason for this could be Marlowe’s untimely and early death, at the height of his career. Although his life has been the subject of several studies, it seems that the only absolute facts we have are his murder, the injuries that killed him and where they found his body. Somehow, Louise Welsh wrote a whole novella with only this scant bit of background.

Not a whole lot to go on, is it? What’s more, Welsh certainly had many options to approach this subject. In this case, she chose the opening line of: “I have four candles and one night in which to write this account…” This shows us that we will see but one side of this story, that of Marlowe himself. We also quickly discover that the world has learned of his offenses against Queen, Country and God during his short lifetime, making his murder understandable, despite all the mystery. Welsh takes only the last three days of Marlowe’s life, and puts them down as a type of diary, noting that if he is killed after he’s finished, someone has been instructed to hide these pages – but if he lives, he’ll burn them. Presumably, the only reason we can read this account is that we now know of his murder.

This is an amazing premise, and despite knowing the outcome, you’ll quickly find yourself hoping he’ll survive. While this might seem silly, like reading a fictional book about the Titanic and hoping that it won’t hit the iceberg, part of the writer’s challenge is to get readers to identify or sympathize with their characters. In this case, and probably because of this personal approach, Welsh quickly made me care about Marlowe. Of course, in today’s world, several of Marlowe’s real-life actions seem ordinary and hardly the stuff of intrigue. For instance, being an atheist isn’t a crime today, but in the 1590s, this was actually illegal. As for homosexuality, despite King Henry VIII criminalizing this in 1533, today being gay is no longer a criminal offense. This means that while this novella may be a historical curiosity, there is little – if anything – to make it relevant to us today. However, it does make a good basis for a crime novel, and who can resist a rip-rousingly good “who done it”?

One of the problems with historical fiction is the use of language. We tend to forget that certain words weren’t always in general use, and many modern turns of phrase were unheard of in previous eras. The question is how can we use language to help the reader feel the period, without sounding archaic, silly or worse, unintelligible? If you have read my review of Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs, you’ll find that this is possible; the author simply needs to insert just enough historically correct language to suggest the era, while sticking to a modern, but formal structure. I don’t know if Welsh studied Carey’s method, but she certainly tread that thin line with exceptional balance, keeping this novella from feeling either too modern or too ancient.

As for historical accuracy mistakes, I have to say that from what I could see, Welsh did her homework very well and I didn’t feel that anything was out of place or inaccurate. Of course, I’m no expert on Elizabethan times, so if I’m wrong here, please correct me. However, the title of this book proves one thing at least – that she knew the name Marlowe gave his most evil villains in all his plays.

Remember, this is a novella and not a full-length novel. That means Welsh had to get her point across swiftly and without waffling – and this she did with aplomb. I found that the whole book had a sort of liquid feel to it, flowing swiftly from start to finish, and pulling the reader along. This was also consistent with the premise that Marlowe wrote this within a matter of hours, and readers will feel the urgency in Welsh’s masterfully concise prose. If there are any drawbacks to this book, it could only be that it reads a bit too fast, but that only means you’ll not be wasting your time if you read it repeatedly. This is why I can highly recommend this book with all my heart and give it a full five out of five stars (it makes my list of all-time favorite books).


“Tamburlaine Must Die” by Louise Welsh is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), the website, new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. This is a revised version of my review on Curious Book Fans and Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady), which also appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

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