Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh

It was a treat to read Tamburlaine Must Die, a short book that I read in a day. I can’t remember when I last read a book in a day!

Sometimes novellas, such as this is with just 140 pages, can seem lacking, needing more depth of character or plot, leaving me feeling that it should really have been a full length novel, or an even shorter story. But Tamburlaine Must Die has an immediacy, that drew me in to the late Elizabethan world.

I wrote about the opening paragraph and synopsis on Tuesday and almost immediately after I began to read the book. Written in the first person and set in May 1593, it’s a tense, dramatic story of the last days of Christopher Marlowe, playwright, poet and spy. Accused of heresy and atheism, his death is a mystery, although conjecture and rumours abound. Louise Welsh has used several sources in writing this novella, but as she writes in the Author’s Note:

History has bequeathed us a tantalising framework of facts – the Elizabethans were as prolific as the Stasi when it came to official documents. Yet the facts can’t tell us the full tale and historian’s theories on Marlowe’s death are ultimately well informed, meticulously researched speculation.

We know that Marlowe dies in a house in Deptford. We know the date of his death and the three men present. We know the nature of the wound that killed him. Everything else is educated guesswork, or in this author’s case, a fiction.

Tamburlaine Must Die conveys the claustrophobic atmosphere of danger surrounding Marlowe; who can he trust, and who is behind the pseudonym of ‘Tamburlaine’, who posted a libellous handbill referencing Marlowe’s plays? He is very aware that death is just around the corner:

A dagger can find its way into a belly or a back before the victim spies it. I thought I felt the prickle of surveillance on my shoulders. And though I knew it was most likely the effect of my own blood running faster in my veins, I made my way from the crush of people, trying to keep note of who was around me, checking  if any faces lingered in the thinning crowd. (page 31)

As well as Marlowe, Louise Welsh throws in Dr Dee and Thomas Walsingham, Marlowe’s patron and refers to Walter Raleigh too. In such a brief book she has managed to convey the political and the seedy underworld of the Elizabethan period, the dishonesty and love of intrigue, the dangers of the plague and the threat of war. Has much changed since then, I wonder.

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