Review: A Tip for the Hangman, by Allison Epstein
Mhmmmmmm - some strangely mixed feelings on this one!
On the one hand, this was a very fun book, and I very much enjoyed the process of reading it, and on the other, it just didn't quite live up to the (admittedly very high) expectations I had of it.
Very brief plot summary: Kit Marlowe, of Doctor Faustus fame, is recruited while at Cambridge by Walsingham to be a spy for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. He accepts, obviously, and thus begins a book of adventures and rollicking good fun. His first assignment is in Queen Mary's household as a codebreaker.
Firstly, the pros: Allison Epstein's writing is just absolutely delightful. A perfect sprinkling of period details, to make the entirety of the plot feel very true to the time period without ever feeling like it was a Very Serious Period Piece; believable, accurate dialogue; meticulous research (I discovered, after finishing this book, that a lot of the more outlandish plot points actually are based on historical fact! It is highly likely that Kit Marlowe ACTUALLY WAS A SPY! My disbelief is now that nobody has written a novel about this before Allison Epstein). The in-joke about how terrible, and like, truly bad at spying Elizabeth's spyring is, is well-managed and keeps up throughout the entire novel without ever tipping into satire or coming on too thick. I also really, really loved the structural way Allison Epstein pulled back from Marlowe's POV, and how the latter third of the book seamlessly transitions into third-person omniscient narrator as we get closer and closer to Marlowe's murder (and I'm sorry, but that's not a spoiler. Everybody knows that Marlowe died young and in very mysterious circumstances, and if you didn't know that, you should've paid better attention in English literature or, I don't know, Shakespeare in Love) and his alienation becomes more acute. And, of course, the writing absolutely sparkles - Marlowe's sarcastic asides are so witty and dry that I laughed out loud at least once per chapter.
Right, and now, unfortunately, the cons. The main con, for me, is that the blurb promised me a rollicking adventure of espionage and literary thrillers with a complex hero with an ambiguous moral compass (I love a hero with an ambiguous moral compass!) but, in reality... well, Marlowe is stupidly principled. He spends most of his time attempting to be a spy (he's a catastrophically bad spy) destroyed by his sense of right and wrong, which makes him a very easy target for people who actually do manage to hang their scruples up at the door when they go to work BEING SPIES, which means he walks into an awful lot of obvious traps. By the time he walks into the trap that is his murder, I was so annoyed at how He Wanted to Be Good While Doing Bad Things instead of just, you know, being willing to do what was necessary when he ACCEPTED THE MORALLY CORRUPT JOB OF BEING A SPY, that quite frankly I felt like he was asking to be murdered. He was obviously becoming a liability. What, exactly, did you expect the spymaster to do, Kit? Don't make a deal with the devil and then be surprised when he comes to collect what you owe. You literally wrote the play about how that never works out.
Second thing that annoyed me - all of the spying that actually happened gets kind of glossed over as exposition montages. I wish we could have spent more time actually with Kit doing codebreaking stuff, rather than it being condensed into one 'And then several months went by while our hero did this' paragraph. And there was no literary thriller - just a few chapters about the Elizabethan playhouses, in which we see Will Shakespeare steal the idea from Hamlet from Thomas Kyd (maybe you should've let him have that one, Tom). and that was fun, I did enjoy that.
And, oh my God, everyone in this book is so bad at being a spy. Kit Marlowe is willing to completely throw everything away because he can't actually give up on the idea of good and evil; Robert Cecil is so dedicated to the idea of political necessity and risk mitigation that he blows away any strategic advantage that might require even the hint of a gamble; and Poley and Baines are so committed to their own personal advancement that they are willing to kill and betray their fellow spies or completely undermine an assignment if it'll make them look good. Why is everyone in a book about spies so bad at being spies????? And if this is actually how the intelligence service was run under Elizabeth I how on God's green earth did she stay on the throne so long???? CHRIST.
BUT - I still really enjoyed this book! It was a fun, quick read and the writing was strong enough that I was able to overlook the plot holes. I'll read whatever this author publishes next, but I think I probably will downgrade my expectations. I recommend if you like historical fiction that stays true to the source material, and you don't mind being able to take the book not very seriously.