A Fine Madness

Written by Alan Judd
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

At the beginning of the reign of King James I, the ageing Thomas Phelippes, a talented decipherer once employed by Sir Francis Walsingham, lives in a cell in the King’s Bench Prison. Here he is visited by an emissary of the new king, eager to know all that Thomas can remember of the life, and violent death, of his friend Christopher Marlowe, playwright and spy. Thomas tells all he can in the hope of release, though he cannot fathom why the king is so interested.

It is not an easy task to write a fictional account of real events and maintain a sense of tension when the reader already knows how the story must end. Judd succeeds because of the quality of his language and his vivid portrait of the mercurial, enigmatic and reckless Marlowe. What motivates him to betray Catholic priests to certain death? It is not religious zeal, for Thomas warns his friend more than once of the risks he runs in voicing beliefs amounting to heresy (amongst other things, the playwright calmly compares himself to Judas, justifying Judas’s actions).

Judd describes the startling sophistication of the Elizabethan government’s network of informers, of false trails and planted evidence. At the centre of it is Walsingham, who lives in a house “like himself, of plain and modest demeanour, or front, with an interior of so many secret chambers that none could know them well”. A lesser writer might have dealt with the punishment of the regime’s enemies as bloodthirsty theatre. Instead, the racking of Fr Ballard in a near silent dungeon is described with a clinical precision that delivers real horror.