No 436 Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh

I had initially lined this short historical novel up to read as part of Novellas in November, but didn’t manage to fit it in. I’m a big fan of Christopher Marlowe’s plays and the myth-making that surrounds him as a figure, so was keen to read Louise Welsh’s fictional retelling of the last murky days of his life.

Tamburlaine Must Die is a slim, strange sort of a book. It is part straightforward thriller, which asks who denounced Marlowe to the Privy Council and set in motion the series of events leading to his violent and unexplained death. It is also part existential puzzle, exploring the idea of the point where art intersects with life and the power that the imagination has over real events.

The book takes the form of a long journal entry, written by Marlowe himself, beginning shortly before his death on May 30, 1593.

Fresh from the bed of his patron, Lord Thomas Walsingham, Marlowe is summoned before the Queen’s Privy Council, charged with heresy and atheism. Marlowe’s old friend the playwright Thomas Kyd, has named Marlowe as the author of a heretical pamphlet, seeking to save himself. Meanwhile, someone calling himself Tamburlaine – Marlowe’s greatest theatrical creation – has posted threatening verses on the door of a Dutch church, and despite Marlowe audaciously pointing out that “if I were to write a libel I would not make it so illiterate,” his accusers need someone to take the blame and Marlowe fits the bill. Given a few days reprieve, Marlowe embarks on a quest to unmask the true Tamburlaine and offer up his life to save himself.

I had always been half in love with Tamburlaine, my most ruthless creation, a savage Scythian shepherd-made king who acknowledged no obstacle in his campaign of terror. I had felt him at my shoulder as I wrote, pushing my quill to further outrage.

As the story is told from Marlowe’s point of view, the plot that follows is murky. Welsh vividly captures a dark world of intrigue where characters are all too willing to turn on one another in order to keep themselves alive and given Marlowe’s own background as a spy for the crown, there is also the suggestion that his strings are being pulled by a much higher power and he in being used for reasons he cannot fathom.

Welsh’s Elizabethan London as is pungently atmospheric, a city recently ravaged by the Plague where death is never far from anyone’s mind. Here mistrust is rife, drink is plentiful and violence is never far away. Her characters know that the difference between life and death is one of the slightest twists of fate.

I wondered if he saw the glow pleasure cast on my face and imagined these drained lips peeled back against my teeth, the cheeks and brow he caressed specked green with rot. I shivered. My patron had surpassed any vice of mine. He had slept with a dead man.

The language of the novella is deliberately theatrical, told with a dramatic flair that works for the most part, only occasionally slipping into melodrama. The plot though feels disappointingly thin and many of the strands introduced simply drift away with no conclusion. Just as Marlowe struggles to fathom the scheme into which he has fallen, so too does the reader. It’s not easy to bring clarity to a mystery that is centuries old and, for me, the book suffered from the inability to bring any kind of definitive answer to Marlowe’s story.

Welsh’s skill lies instead in her merciless rendering of the cut-throat nature of the political machinations of the Elizabethan court, where play-acting and subterfuge are of the utmost importance. Not unlike the theatre itself.


The 746

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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

13 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Several years ago, I read ‘The Cutting Room’ by Louise Welsh which I thought was mighty fine. This ‘Tamberlaine Must Die’, from your description, sounds right up my alley being an historical novel about Christopher Marlowe. Don’t be surprised if it appears on my site very soon. I see Welsh’s ‘The Girl on the Stairs’ which also interests me.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I too have found the Marlowe question interesting. Sounds like this one didn’t quite live up to its initial promise, but I’ll probably read it at some point (esp. since I own it).


  3. It’s always a difficulty with books based on real life mysteries – leave it unsolved, or make up a solution and annoy all the people who think the true solution is something else? But I do like the writing in the snippets you’ve chosen, and it sounds intriguing…


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