A Tip for the Hangman

Written by Allison Epstein
Review by Susan Lowell

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) is the Jimi Hendrix of great playwrights.

Marlowe’s meteoric career fizzled mysteriously 427 years ago. Just a few brilliant plays and poems and a few scandalous (but largely unverified) bits of biography survived him. Was he a spy? A scholar? A ruffian? A child molester? A Catholic? An atheist? A counterfeiter, or merely an alchemist? Was he Shakespeare?

That last suggestion is chronologically impossible, but Marlowe definitely invented blank verse and also bequeathed to his writer-successors a lurid treasure trove of biographical rumors, which has recently inspired Allison Epstein’s thrilling and romantic debut novel, A Tip for the Hangman. Reportedly pitched to editors as “Shakespeare in Love meets Sarah Waters,” this entertaining story presents Marlowe—under his nickname, Kit—mainly as a conflicted Elizabethan double agent, while largely downplaying his writing life. A man alone in a room with his quill is not very dramatic, of course.

Epstein successfully evokes both the beauty and the brutality of 16th-century England, which is dirty and smells bad. Hangings and beheadings abound, though the precise meaning of the novel’s title is never explained. Whatever else Marlowe was or wasn’t, Elizabethan court records strongly imply that he was a bar-room brawler and a risk-taker. The exciting plot sweeps the reader from Cambridge University to the Palace of Whitehall to Newgate Prison.

Epstein is at her best with settings and secondary characters such as Mary Queen of Scots, Sir Francis Walsingham (Elizabeth I’s spymaster), and Marlowe’s longtime, long-suffering lover, Tom. But Kit himself, maybe inevitably, remains enigmatic. Did he resemble Shakespeare’s Mercutio? Or his own daredevil Doctor Faustus, or thuggish Tamberlaine?

Perhaps all we really need to know is that his work still dazzles and he died too young.