The fourth novel by St. John’s author Michelle Butler Hallett is a fictional account of the months leading up to playwright Christopher Marlowe’s untimely death in 1593. The mysterious circumstances of Marlowe’s demise, historical evidence that he was a spy, and suggestions he was gay and not committed to the Protestant faith, form the springboard for a tale of intrigue and intelligence – in every sense.
Hallett presents Marlowe as a brilliant and charming, though sometimes arrogant and impulsive, man working in the employ of spymaster Sir Robert Cecil. As the novel begins, Marlowe, fresh from betraying the target of his espionage, is himself betrayed. Fleshing out scant historical records with imagination and psychological insight, Hallett’s exploration of love, loyalty, faith, and betrayal in Tudor England suggests comparisons with the historical novels of Hilary Mantel.
Like Mantel, Hallett assumes her readers are sharp enough to follow dialogue devoid of quotation marks and overt attribution. This occasionally requires close reading, but mostly enhances the fluidity of the assured and expressive prose. Dialogue and internal monologue is presented in modernized Elizabethan English that feels natural, probably because of the author’s familiarity with the period’s rhythms and vocabulary, from poetry and rhetoric to the brutal language of taverns and dark alleys.
Hallett’s knowledge and understanding of Marlowe’s milieu is revealed in other ways: a dramatis personae of historical figures both famous and obscure; casual descriptions of quotidian life and vivid representations of physical violence; the era’s cutthroat politics, which equated atheism with sedition and had little time for justice. All of this contributes to turning what may seem a fanciful premise into an entirely believable story, but ultimately the depth of her characters, particularly her fascinating chief protagonist, is what brings the novel to life.
Complex, lyrical, and with a profound sense of a world long passed and humanity’s eternal motivations, This Marlowe holds up extremely well next to the most lauded recent historical fiction.