Louise Welsh’s Tamburlaine Must Die is a short, atmospheric, brisk novella to be consumed in a single sitting. It is the story of the final days of the Elizabethan poet Christopher Marlowe, whose murder in 1593 is one of the great unsolved historical mysteries beloved by conspiracy theorists. (Google it, you’ll see.) The book is narrated by Marlowe himself in the form of a final written testimony dashed off on the eve of his murder, which he fully anticipates.
In Welsh’s version of events, someone has pasted a blasphemous poem to the door of a church and signed it “Tamburlaine,” a character from Marlowe’s most famous play. Now, with rumors flying that Marlowe himself is the heretic, he has just a few days to find the real “Tamburlaine” or face the gruesome death of an apostate in the religious police state that was Elizabethan England, to be hung, drawn and quartered before a bloodthirsty mob.
At barely 140 liberally spaced pages, Tamburlaine Must Die is too short to work as a mystery. There just isn’t enough space for Welsh to fill in the details of the many intricate, shadowy conspiracies she hints at. The story rushes along too quickly to get bogged down in perfunctory details of who, what, where, why. The dramatic question of the book is Who killed Christopher Marlowe? Welsh’s somewhat unsatisfying answer: Who knows?
Or, more exactly, Who cares? Welsh is not interested in telling a suspenseful man-on-the-run mystery. Her Marlowe is not Jason Bourne in period drag, so she can afford to slight the usual devices of thriller novels. What engages Welsh is not Marlowe’s death but his world.
And when she describes the streets and people of London in 1593, the book soars. Here is the crowd at a public execution:
Wild-eyed masks, red-faced and spittle spattering, some with appetites so awakened they stuff themselves with pies, meat juices glossing their chins, pastry cramming their mouths, even as they call for the coward to be cut down and quartered.
In the streets we meet “muscle-armed” milkmaids and a “skelfy” jailer whose skin has “the transparent gleam of a white slug.” The agents of the police state are everywhere, spies and informers, torturers, inquisitors. One is always a careless word away from a shiv to the gut or, worse, the Tower and the rack. It is a vivid, menacing dystopia that reminded me of Philip Kerr’s Berlin trilogy, even of Orwell’s 1984.
Violence seems to sharpen Louise Welsh’s prose, a vice I share with her and thoroughly approve. We share other things, too. I won a prize once for my first novel that Welsh had won the year before, both for gritty crime novels set in our home towns, Glasgow for Welsh, Boston for me. For our second novels we both chose famous unsolved murders in fairly accurate historical settings. Why? Maybe the escape into the pseudo-reality of historical fiction frees the imagination from the pressure to duplicate an early success, or deflects the expectation that you will continue to represent your city “authentically” in book after book — to become some sort of arch Glaswegian or Bostonian. In choosing Marlowe’s London for her second novel, Welsh traveled further from home than I did. It was a pleasure for a couple of hours to go there with her.