It was the other Marlowe who said ‘down these mean streets a man must go’, but for Christopher Marlowe, the streets of London in 1593 are every bit as mean and far more noirish than Chandler’s Los Angeles. Louise Welsh has written a brilliantly impressionistic view of the playwright’s last days which manages to capture the intrigue, confusion and ambiguity which has always surrounded his murder. In her version, his fate seems almost pre-ordained, certainly tragic in the same sense as Doctor Faustus’s own, in that he is a victim of his own hubris, trusting in his wit, his talent, and his beauty to get him through situations where they prove ultimately useless.
It’s the ambiguity which makes this book work. Sexuality is always a telling part of crime stories; femme fatales traditionally probed male weaknesses. In spy tales, real and fictional, sexual ambiguity has been a telling component: those used to hiding their sex can be hiding other things. Thus we sense echoes of the later Cambridge spies in this very early variety. Welsh does an excellent job creating the atmosphere of Elizabethan London; the darkness, the relative chaos, the smoggy heat of the bars and rooms where Marlowe, Walsingham, Dr Dee and others practice their intrigues. And throughout it all, someone calling himself Tamburlaine is making Marlowe’s life ever more dangerous; he has been betrayed by Thomas Kyd, and now he is being asked to turn betrayer as well. If I’ve any complaint about this book, it’s that Walter Raleigh appears only off stage, and even so his character is described in terms that beg for him to step into the plot more fully.
Welsh spins words wonderfully; it’s not quite the English of Shakespeare and Marlowe, but it’s an intoxicating imitation. You might have to search outside the crime section for this one, but it will be worth it.