Review: A Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein

Review: A Tip for the Hangman by Allison EpsteinA Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, historical fiction, historical mystery, thriller
Pages: 384
Published by Doubleday Books on February 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Christopher Marlowe, a brilliant aspiring playwright, is pulled into the duplicitous world of international espionage on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I. A many-layered historical thriller combining state secrets, intrigue, and romance.

England, 1585. In Kit Marlowe's last year at Cambridge, he receives an unexpected visitor: Queen Elizabeth's spymaster, who has come with an unorthodox career opportunity. Her Majesty's spies are in need of new recruits, and Kit's flexible moral compass has drawn their attention. Kit, a scholarship student without money or prospects, accepts the offer, and after his training the game is on. Kit is dispatched to the chilly manor where Mary, Queen of Scots is under house arrest, to act as a servant in her household and keep his ear to the ground for a Catholic plot to put Mary on the throne.
While observing Mary, Kit learns more than he bargained for. The ripple effects of his service to the Crown are far-reaching and leave Kit a changed man. But there are benefits as well. The salary he earns through his spywork allows him to mount his first play, and over the following years, he becomes the toast of London's raucous theatre scene. But when Kit finds himself reluctantly drawn back into the uncertain world of espionage, conspiracy, and high treason, he realizes everything he's worked so hard to attain--including the trust of the man he loves--could vanish before his very eyes.
Pairing modern language with period detail, Allison Epstein brings Elizabeth's privy council, Marlowe's lovable theatre troupe, and the squalor of sixteenth-century London to vivid, teeming life as Kit wends his way behind the scenes of some of Tudor history's most memorable moments. At the center of the action is Kit himself--an irrepressible, irreverent force of nature. Thrillingly written, full of poetry and danger, A Tip for the Hangman brings an unforgettable protagonist to new life, and makes a centuries-old story feel utterly contemporary.

My Review:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” Whoops. Wrong book. Right concept, but very much the wrong book. Much too early.

Elizabethan England only seems like a Golden Age because we’re looking back at it. Because history is written by the victors, and in this case the victor was Elizabeth Tudor, Gloriana herself.

Anonymous 16th century portrait, believed to be Christopher Marlowe

What history glosses over are the dirty deeds done, whether or not they are dirt cheap, by unscrupulous men in dark places who pretend they are working for the good of their country – even if they are just out for the main chance.

Christopher Marlowe, often referred to as Kit, was a comet blazing across the English stage just as William Shakespeare was getting his start. It’s even possible, although unlikely, that Marlowe actually was Shakespeare. He’s got the credentials for it and the timing is possible.

On the condition that Marlowe faked his own rather suspicious death in a barroom brawl. We’ll probably never know.

But this book, this story wrapped around not one but several tips for any number of hangmen, leads the reader – and Kit Marlowe – to that suspicious barroom brawl by a road that is surprising, circuitous and shrouded in secrets. The kind of secrets that brought one queen to her end and saved another’s kingdom.

Escape Rating A+: A Tip for the Hangman is the best kind of historical fiction, the kind where the reader feels the dirt under their fingernails, the grit under their own feet – and the smells in their own nostrils.

It’s also the kind that immerses the reader in the era it portrays. We’re right there with Marlowe, a poor scholarship student at Cambridge, as he becomes Doctor Faustus to his own personal Mephistopheles a decade before he wrote his most enduring play.

Depiction of Sir Francis Walsingham, principal secretary to Elizabeth I, Queen of England.

It’s hard to get past that image, even though we only see it in retrospect, as the Queen’s Spymaster and Secretary of State, Francis Walsingham, recruits the young, impoverished and most importantly clever Marlowe into his network of agents and informants with one aim in mind.

To bring down Elizabeth’s great rival, Mary, Queen of Scots.

A recruitment which ultimately becomes Mary’s end. But eventually also Marlowe’s as well.

Marlowe spends the entire book dancing on the edge of a knife, trying to forget that he’ll be cut no matter which way he falls and ignoring the forces around him, along with his own increasing world-weariness, that guarantee he will fall sooner or later.

There’s something about this period, the Tudor and Stuart era of English history, that has always captivated me. This book does a fantastic job of drawing the reader into the cut and thrust not of politics so much as the skullduggery that lies underneath it.

As I was reading A Tip for the Hangman, my mind dragged up two series that I loved that feature the same period and have many characters that overlap this book. Elizabeth Bear’s Promethean Age puts an urban fantasy/portal twist on this period and includes both Marlowe and Shakespeare as featured characters, while Dorothy Dunnett’s marvelous Lymond series focuses on a character who spies on many of the same people that Marlowe does here, most notably Mary, Queen of Scots. Lymond’s frequent second, third and fourth thoughts about the life he has fallen into echo Marlowe in the depths of regret and even despair.

A Tip for the Hangman is a fantastic book for those looking for their history and historical fiction to be “warts and all” – to immerse the reader in life as it was lived and not just the deeds and doings of the high and mighty. Because when it comes to conveying a more nuanced version of life as a hard-scrabbling playwright living hand to mouth and fearing that the hand would get cut off this feels like an absorbing story of fiction being the lie that tells, if not THE absolute truth then absolutely a certain kind of truth.

I would also say, “Read it and weep” for Kit Marlowe and what he might have been if he’d lived. Instead, I’ll just say “READ IT!”

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