Review: A Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein

I went into this book knowing absolutely nothing about Christopher Marlowe except that he was a contemporary of Shakespeare. What a surprise! At least I didn’t have to worry about historical accuracy, since I didn’t know any better. Though I do know somewhat more about Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, and here I wasn’t disappointed. I thought he and Cecil were very believable, so I was able to accept the Marlowe story as well. Since a spy’s life is shadowed in mystery anyway, why couldn’t these things have happened? Marlow got sucked into this shadow world during his college years, when he seemed singularly unsuited to academia—though his genius at storytelling apparently was in overdrive, so to speak. Initially sent to spy on Mary Queen of Scots as the imprisoned queen plotted treason, Marlow discovered he had a propensity for this dangerous occupation. At the same time, his conscience tormented him; he felt like a murderer, betraying those who trusted him. Surviving this first challenge, he became intimate with his college friend Thomas, whose love gave him a lifeline for the next several years when Walsingham’s demands threatened to overwhelm him. Marlow had a love/hate relationship with his spying profession and tried to protect Thomas from the darker side of his life—with mixed results. The farther into the book we read, the darker the story. Poor Marlow, who may be a rake and a troublemaker, has a good heart and is not morally suited for this life of double-dealing. But it seems he can’t extricate himself. All the while he puts out unconventional blockbuster plays that shake the Elizabethan stage. He’s a very interesting character who makes a mess of his life because he seems to be addicted to living on the edge.


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