Tamburlaine Must Die

Louise Welsh
Tamburlaine Must Die
(Harper Perennial, 2004)

Welsh is the author of The Cutting Room — a chilling mystery — I mean chilling.

This is a novella about Kit Marlowe’s last days in Deptford 1593; steeped with a pungency of Elizabethan London, urgent, suspicious, with the persona of Walsingham clouding the atmosphere.

There is a portrait of Raleigh:

Raleigh changes any room he enters. Sometimes it is as if a window has been opened. Sometimes as if a door has slammed. Soldier, sailor, spy, Raleigh has lived many lives since he left his father’s farm. Alchemist, courtier, bard, not so long ago he was the Queen’s darling. He still trails a touch of her magic, though he forsook her favour for the love of a lover long past a maid. Adventurer, chronicler, knave. Tall and spare, Raleigh has the curly hair and rose-gold sheen of the boglanders he ran to ground in Ireland. But he is more muscled than they. His body is a canvas for fine fabric, and you can be sure that when courtier Raleigh bridged a puddle for the Queen, the cloak he forfeited was a fine one.

Raleigh is all style and some substance. His pointed beard has a natural curl that men who spend an early morning hour with a barber and hot tongs can never quite achieve. A large pearl bobs recklessly from his left ear, reminding us of the buccaneer beneath the poet. He is high and low. He can rape and kill, woo and versify. He has thrown bishops from their livings and gilded the way to new worlds. Raleigh is the most calculating of men, and reckless with it.

Raleigh is a fine pirate and a bad spy. He’s adept at fiction and poor at deceit. He can weigh smoke. Challenge God. He keeps company with wizards and magi, earls and the Queen’s advisors and finds they are the same men. He has dealt in slaughter and massacres. Settled Virginia and lost the new world. He is the conquered man who will write history and so win the last battle, a fine friend and a better enemy.

She creates Marlowe’s arrogance:

“I forced my fear into anger forging metal into my voice.”
“Danger is an intoxicant to trounce tobacco and wine.”
“I thought I felt the prickle of surveillance on my shoulders.”

As the end comes near and his hated foe surfaces: “Hate has fled, now we are equals.” Death within 24 hours.

I loved it, short, sweet, memorable.

Christopher Marlowe thought by some to be a match for Shakespeare was knifed to death at a house in Deptford on the evening of Wednesday, 30th May, 1593. It has been a mystery, some even argue he wasn’t murdered at all, it was a ruse engineered by the spymaster Walsingham, who had used him as an agent. He was a homosexual in a time where buggery was a capital offence.

Some reviews said:

Publishers Weekly: “A hard, sharp little rapier of a thriller/mystery that packs a punishing schedule of sex, violence, wheeling and double-dealing into its brief length.”

Daily Telegraph: “Utterly engrossing, I read it in a sitting, unable to put it down. Elizabethan England has never seemed more beguilingly immediate.”

The Financial Times (U.K.): “A tale of vivid homosexual passion, murderous treachery and strutting intellectual pride. … A sparky addition to the Marlowe myth.”

The Scotsman: “Welsh conjures up a London snared in espionage, assassination and putrefaction, piling drinkers, booksellers, prostitutes, street vendors, Privy Councillors, jailers into a breakneck plotline, with an immediacy of detail and visceral intensity you can almost smell on the page.”

To support this:

It was early by theatrical standards but the streets were already swarming with the need to make a coin. I crossed the bridge, travelling against a tide of travellers who were bound for the shore I had just quitted. A parade of people who, having nothing to sell, sold themselves. Jugglers and tumblers; coiners, cutpurses and cosiners; dancers, fiddlers, nips and foists, vagabonds of all description. Three generations of rogues swelled the throng. Ragged children studying the moves of apprentices and masterless men. Old soldiers, who were soldiers no more, just shuffle gaited beggars nursing their sores. All were making their way to the City from the night-time sanctuary of privileged places. [pp. 79-80]

Come dusk the traffic would reverse direction. And as the night grew dark so would creep the respectable rich and poor following in the rogues’ wake. Burgesses, merchants and aristocrats, esquires and gentlemen, stepping from the city into the unchartered quarters, heading for the bear-baiting pits and playhouses. Hunting for the company of harlots, whores and sixpenny strumpets. Bewigged and bedazzled they would drop their breeches in bawdy houses, thanking God for inventing a sin they would regret and renounce even before they had returned to the safe side of the river. [pp. 80-81]

In the midst of the crowd someone shouted, ‘Look to your purse!’ Most were wise to the old ruse and kept their hands clear of their money. Near to me though a youth in velvet breeches clutched at the chest of his jerkin, nicely marking the thief’s target. A one-legged man vaulted past, nimble on one crutch, jolting the youth as he went. A second cripple followed in the first’s shadow, a legless long-armed rogue birling fast on a box fixed with rollers. Each man bore the leery marks of boxing bouts. In an instant the boy’s purse was snatched and passed and the thieves absorbed by the crowd. No one offered sympathy. London hands out such lessons by the minute and it is up to each to look to himself. [pp. 81-82]

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