Our book today is Louise Welsh’s 2004 novella Tamburlaine Must Die, which takes the form of a frenzied account of Christopher Marlowe’s last few days on Earth, as narrated by the famous playwright himself in an easy quasi-modern idiom Welsh has here perfected. The book is as beautiful and intense as a snow-squall, and in that it joins its only two competitors for the title of the best Christopher Marlowe novel of them all – those being Anthony Burgess’ A Dead Man in Deptford and George Garrett’s Entered from the Sun.
When this novella opens, Marlowe is spending his days at the country estate of his patron, Francis Walsingham (plague has shut the theaters in London and driven away everyone who can get away), when word comes from London that somebody has posted a scurrilous attack on recent Dutch immigrants and signed it with the name of Marlowe’s most famous stage-creation, Tamburlaine. Suspicion naturally falls on Marlowe himself, and a messenger is sent to fetch him before Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council. Such a meeting is no minor thing, as Marlowe knows quite well:
This was the Privy Council. Ministers who cared enough for high office to profit from death. Who had committed men they knew well and men they had met only once to torture and death. Dangerous men, each with a ruthless core, who had played chess with their own lives and still lived, though some had sat in prison cells and listened to the hollow sound of nails splitting wood as their own gallows grew in the yard.
They don’t arrest him, but they do require that he present himself to them every day while they decide his fate – in the troubled final years of Elizabeth’s reign, that was as close as you could come to walking around with a death sentence hanging over you, and Marlowe knows this too. Welsh’s Marlowe is made of all the familiar, comfortable conjectures about him, including the two most popular ones: that he was happy to roger men, and that he was from an early age involved in the cloak-and-dagger world of Elizabethan spying and counter-spying. Her Marlowe has seen it all and is no stranger to life and death situations and the odd things they do to your mind:
Death makes the world a brighter place. I’ve seen the shape danger gives to things, an edge so sharp that if you like your head atop your shoulders and your entrails tucked safe in your belly it’s best not to stop and admire the view. Yet the prospect of death renders everything lovely. Colours shine stronger. Strangers’ faces fascinate and your sex calls you to business you must not attend.
Tamburlaine Must Die is constructed around the tried and true ‘secret memoir’ ‘I’m writing this down and hiding it away for future generations to find’ formula (a formula given its apotheosis in Robert Graves’ I, Claudius), and it works perfectly. This skinny little book came and went in 2004 with barely a ripple, but it’s vivid and fast-paced and entirely worth your time, should you ever run across it. I ordered a copy from London back then, read it and loved it, then somehow lost track of it (I’m convinced a mysterious stranger periodically enters my apartment, somehow bypasses the razor-sharp vigilance of my basset hound, bags up books at random, and sells them to faraway bookstores). I recently found a copy and re-read it – and I’m glad I did. Marlowe still hasn’t had his ultimate novel … but Tamburlaine Must Die joins the ranks of great partial versions!