Christopher Marlowe is a bit of a mystery. He was a famous playwright during the Elizabethan era whose works are today mostly overshadowed by those of Shakespeare. One reason for this is because Marlowe was murdered at the height of his career when he was not yet 30 years old. Although his infamous life has been the subject of several non-fictional studies, it seems that the only hard facts we have about his life are the fact that he was murdered, when and where his body was found, and the injuries that killed him. It was with this scant bit of background, that the award winning author of the psychological crime novel, The Cutting Room – Louise Welsh was approached to write a novella. And so Tamburlaine Must Die was written and published.
Not a whole lot to go on, is it? And Welsh certainly had many options on how she could have approached this subject. In this case, she chose the opening line of “I have four candles and one night in which to write this account…” which shows us that we will see but one side of the story, and that being of Marlowe himself. That the world has learned of his offenses against Queen, Country and God during his short life-time, would make his murder understandable, even if it’s still shrouded in mystery. And so Welsh takes only the last three days of Marlowe’s life, decides to put them down as a type of diary, and notes that if he is killed after he’s finished, that someone has been instructed to hide these pages – but if he lives, he’ll burn them up. Our knowing that he was, of course, killed sets up the reader’s prior knowledge that this is why we presumably can read this account.
I personally liked this premise, and even though we already know the outcome, found myself quickly hoping that he’d survive. Silly, I know – it’s like reading a fictional book about the Titanic and hoping that it won’t hit the iceberg. But still, it’s part of the writer’s challenge to get readers to identify or sympathize with the characters. In this case, and probably by using this personal approach, Welsh quickly made me care about Marlowe. Of course, in today’s world, several of Marlowe’s real-life actions seem ordinary and hardly the stuff of intrigue. For instance, no one can be accused of the “crime” of being an atheist today – but in the 1590s, this was actually illegal. We all know that homosexuality was criminalized in England by Henry VIII in 1533, but today there is nothing criminal in simply being Gay (that I know of). So while this novella may be a historical curiosity, there is little – if anything – to make it relevant to us today. However, it does make a good basis for a crime novel, and who can resist a really good “who done it”?
Of course, there are problems in writing anything placed in a historical setting; one being the type of language used. We tend to forget that certain words today just weren’t always in general use, and certain turns of phrase which we may find correct were not considered so in previous eras. This makes the writer’s job that much more difficult when writing this type of work. The question is, how can we use language that helps the reader know what period in time the story is from, while not sounding archaic or silly – or worse, unintelligible? If you have read my review of Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs, you’ll find that this is very possible by inserting just enough historically correct language to suggest the era, while generally sticking to modern, but formal structure. I don’t know if Ms. Welsh studied Carey’s method, but I certainly feel that she tread that thin line with exceptional balance which kept this novella from feeling either too modern or too ancient.
Another pitfall is historical mistakes. I have to say that from what I could see, Welsh did her homework very well and I didn’t feel that anything was out of place or inaccurate. Of course, I’m no expert on Elizabethan times, so if I’m wrong here, I’d be pleased to be corrected.
Remember, this is a very short book – hence its label as a ‘novella’ and not a ‘novel’. This means that Welsh had to get her point across swiftly and without waffling – and this she did. I found that the whole book had a sort of liquid feel to it – as if the story flowed from start to finish. This means it’s a fairly quick read – not just because of its length, but because the reader is drawn in and pulled along from start to finish. This was totally consistent with the premise that it was written by Marlowe in the course of hours. If anything, it reads a bit too fast, but that only means you’ll feel you’re not wasting your time if you read it again and again. No drawbacks there, if you ask me, and this book is highly recommended.
PS: A quick comment about the title – while the full reason why Welsh named this book Tamburlaine Must Die will become self-evident when you read the book, it is important to note that Marlowe’s most evil villain in any of his plays was called Tamburlaine. That should help you a touch here, without giving too much away. This also shows once again that she’s done her homework.
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