08 June, 2006

Tamburlaine Must Die, by Louise Welsh. Book review

Edition reviewed: Canongate, Edinburgh, 2005, ISBN 1 84195 604 X

Tamburlaine Must Die is set in London during the period 19-29 May 1593. Its central character is Christopher Marlowe, and other historical figures include Sir Walter Raleigh, Thomas Walsingham (cousin to Sir Francis Walsingham, head of the Elizabethan intelligence service) and the astrologer and alchemist Dr John Dee.

Who can fail to be entranced by the sheer romanticism of Christopher Marlowe’s life? Poet, playwright, rumoured spy, rumoured homosexual, he lived fast and died young in mysterious circumstances in the seedy underworld of Elizabethan London. Marlowe was Shakespeare’s contemporary and literary equal - some would say superior - author of Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus. He died from a stab wound to the head in a house in Deptford on the evening of 30 May 1593. The official records state that his death resulted from a fight over the bill, though conspiracy theorists ever since have insisted there must have been more to it than that. Tamburlaine Must Die is among their number.

It is 1593 and pestilence is ravaging London. Handbills blaming the pestilence on Dutch immigrants and inciting riot and massacre have appeared, posted by person or persons unknown and signed with the name of Marlowe’s most famous theatrical creation, Tamburlaine. A friend’s betrayal throws suspicion on Marlowe, who is summoned before the Privy Council and accused of treason and heresy. Marlowe has to find and kill the unknown Tamburlaine to clear his name and save his life, but there are deep undercurrents in high politics and more lives and reputations than Marlowe’s are at stake.

Tamburlaine Must Die is elegantly written in a style that echoes some of the rhythms of Elizabethan drama. Inventive turns of phrase and original imagery abound, such as, “....my mind, as busy as a late-night gaming board....” and “...like a father bestowing pearls on a daughter of whose virginity he is certain.” A series of vivid vignettes bring Elizabethan London to life in all its squalid energy, from the crowded street scenes to the booksellers in St Paul’s churchyard.

My chief complaint is that there wasn’t a lot more of this book. I estimate the length at around 25,000 words, a cross between a novella and a beefed-up short story. The plot promised much but in the end it seemed quite slight, even for a novella. I guessed the identity of Tamburlaine about two-thirds of the way through, and when I got to the end I thought, “Oh. Is that it?” Readers hoping for a crime novel or a spy thriller are liable to come away disappointed. I’d have liked to see this expanded into a full-length novel, with a more complex plot and a larger cast of characters, for an extended stay in Marlowe’s colourful world.

An elegant short tale about a most fascinating subject.

Has anyone else read it? Or heard it when it was serialised on Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime slot a few months ago (unfortunately, it’s disappeared from the Listen Again page)? What did you think?


Bernita said...

Afraid I would think much the same as yourself - a frustration.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Sounds interesting, but too truncated for my taste!

I have another novel about Marlowe on my shelf (The Reckoning?), but I've yet to get around to it.

Carla said...

Bernita - Not exactly a frustration, but a shame to get to the end so quickly.

Susan - When you read the other Marlowe novel, I'd be interested to know what you think of it. He's a historical figure who's always interested me.

Rick said...

The length surprises me, since at least in the US you always hear that 25K words is far too short for a viable book. Is this a British thing?

The plot (what there is of it, from your account) raises an interesting general question in hist-fic. Writers are pretty inevitably biased in favor of conspiracy theories, because it would hardly do for Marlowe to die in a barroom brawl, or Amy Robsart die of natural causes, etc.

Carla said...

Rick - the Author's Note says it was commissioned as a novella by the owner of Canongate Press, an independent publisher based in Edinburgh. So it may be a Canongate thing, or it may be a one-off because the owner happened to fancy a novella about Marlowe. It certainly isn't a British thing - novellas and short stories are just as rare on this side of the Pond. In fact it didn't occur to me that it was a novella until I got to the end far faster than I'd expected to, thought "What?" and did a word count. It's printed in a fairly large font in a layout with a generous amount of white space, so there are about 150 pages and when I picked up the book I originally thought it was going to be a slim novel, say about 60,000 words. I didn't think novellas existed any more.

Re conspiracy theories, there's certainly more obvious story potential in a conspiracy theory/cover-up than in a piece of random bad luck or a natural death. A conspiracy theory by its very nature comes with a built-in ready-made plot. That said, not all writers use them. In the film Shakespeare in Love, Marlowe's death is just that, a bar-room brawl (and yes, the first time I saw the film I jumped to the erroneous conclusion that the Colin Firth character was going to be part of a more than usually original conspiracy theory). In novels, I can think of the death of Llewelyn the Last in a minor skirmish near Builth in Wales (12-something), which is asking for the conspiracy theory treatment but which Sharon Penman treated as a random piece of bad luck in The Reckoning.

I thought Amy Robsart was found at the foot of quite a low staircase, which tends to count against an accidental death? I thought the line they took in the TV series The Virgin Queen, where Amy was terminally ill and committed suicide by a method that would incriminate Robert and thus prevent him from marrying Elizabeth, was a neat idea. Mostly I've seen Amy's death treated as murder, which is sort of sexier but less interesting.

Rick said...

If the conspiracy theory developed at at the time, I suppose an author could use it as a hook, even while making a case against it.

I don't recall the height of the stairs where Amy Robsart was found. Certainly there was suspicion of Leicester! The modern view seems to be that advanced breast cancer left her bones so fragile that even a stumble could break her neck, but no one then could have known that.

Carla said...

That's certainly a modern view but I don't find it entirely convincing. Bone metastases are notoriously painful and I'd have thought that if the cancer had destroyed poor Amy's bones to that extent she would have been in such terrible pain that she wouldn't have been wandering around the house. (Though clinical course always varies and she might have been an unusual case). It also doesn't explain why she apparently sent all her servants away to the fair that day. I should have added Amy to my list of 5 - she's the only person who would have known for sure.