So, Gladiola, I’m looking for a historical fiction-spy-romance novel. And it needs to be a bodice ripper. But the bodices must be worn by men. They should also be ripped off by men. Can you recommend something?
Wow! That’s really specific. But fortunately I just finished reading Allison Epstein’s A Tip for the Hangman, and it has everything you want in the historical fiction-spy-romance-male/male bodice ripper genre. However, the narrative does drag at times, especially at the end.
The story opens in October 1585, and Kit (Christopher Marlowe) is at Cambridge University. He believes the other students think he doesn’t belong there. They do. He comes from a poor family in Canterbury where his father is a first-rate alcoholic and third-rate cobbler.
Though he’s a brilliant student, he’s an outsider – all the more so because he’s homosexual. Fortunately his classmate and best friend, Tom, is too. Their love is the only stable thing in Kit’s life. From the beginning Tom knows Kit is a brilliant poet. Eventually Tom realizes this means Kit is also a brilliant liar.
Kit’s moral flexibility comes to the attention of Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster. He desperately needs spies, because Papists across England and Europe are conspiring to depose the queen and replace her with a Catholic monarch. Their leading candidate is Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary (Queen of Scots). That must be awkward around the holidays.
Soon Kit is inside Mary’s household sending vital information to Walsingham, but Kit’s success comes with a cost. “Perhaps he understood, now, what it was for actions to have consequences. None of Walsingham’s agents understood that from the beginning – if they did, they would never sign on. But they all realized, sooner or later, what victory felt like. Hazy and sour, like a half-remembered dream.”
Walsingham gives Kit more assignments, but meanwhile Kit has become the most successful playwright in London. His plays scandalize the censors and the church. He is clearly an atheist, and his relationship with Tom is concerning. Could he be susceptible to blackmail? Could he be a traitor? As long as Walsingham is alive, Kit is protected. Walsingham dies. Kit better watch his back.
The novel is mostly true to the scant historical record on Marlowe. However, the large holes in the record allow Ms. Epstein to conjure an intriguing tale that works best when focused on Papist conspiracies and Kit’s efforts to expose them. And while the love between Kit and Tom is convincingly depicted, it also drifts into melodrama. Overall, however, A Tip for the Hangman is an entertaining read.
Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor