A Dead Man In Deptford by Anthony Burgess

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Oh, what a title. A Dead Man In Deptford is Anthony Burgess’ brilliant imagining of the relatively short life of Elizabethan playwright Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe (or Merlin, or Marley – at the time, surnames were a little more fluid than today). A colourful figure (Rupert Everett was quite a nice choice to play him in his striking cameo during the movie Shakespeare In Love), Marlowe was an atheist, a spy and a homosexual at a time when it was pretty dangerous to be any of those things, let alone all of them. He was also a friend of Sir Walter Raleigh, a powerful man who was in and out of favour in Elizabeth I’s court, making his acquaintance stimulating but potentially perilous. The Privy Council sound like the people who look after public toilets, but you really didn’t want them calling you for an interview – it was always likely to end with the thumbscrews. Louise Welsh covered some of this ground in her enjoyable short, corpse-filled thriller Tamburlaine Must Die, but Burgess is even more liberal with the claret than she was: he takes a couple of pages to describe the execution of several men who have been convicted using Kit’s intelligence. Just hanging them is not enough, the condemned need to view their own torment. So, after castration and a slit in the stomach ‘the bowels gushed out and, here was the skill of it, the victim saw before his eyes turned up’. Sorry if you’re eating, but Burgess really is terribly good at summoning up the sights, sounds and smells of a dangerous, shifty city. Only slightly less unpleasant is Thomas Kyd, author of The Spanish Tragedy, having his fingers broken. There is also, of course, the plague to contend with. And for Marlowe there is something big happening in the London theatre, too: some upstart grammar schoolboy called Shagspaw or Shogspere was down from Warwickshire to try his luck on the stage…Marlowe died in a tavern in Deptford on 30 May 1593, from a knife wound to the eye. This we know: everything else is conjecture. Which is what makes it still such fertile ground for fiction more than 400 years on.

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