Reinvigorate Your Love For Historical Fiction With ‘A Tip For The Hangman’

Allison Epstein’s confident debut re-examines Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe

Angela Lashbrook

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In Over Coffee, writer, reader, and haphazard reviewer Angela Lashbrook chats with authors about their recent books, and quizzes them on their hot breakfast takes.

Christopher Marlowe — aspiring poet, prolific smoker, poor cobbler’s son— is finishing up his last year on scholarship at Cambridge University when he receives a visit from Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham. Walsingham has a proposition for Kit: dispatch to Yorkshire to collect information about Mary Stuart, once the Queen of Scots. British intelligence has reason to believe that Mary is amassing support for a revolt against the House of Tudor, and they need someone like Kit to lurk around Sheffield Manor, where Mary resides, and uncover the details of the plot.

“When I asked Master Norgate to recommend a student who might serve, he spoke of you at length. Of your ambition. Your persuasive rhetoric. Your inability to follow basic rules of conduct, manifested everywhere from the chapel to the alehouse.”

And so Kit heads to Yorkshire to work as a servant in Mary’s household, where he meets traitors, enemies, and people who, in a different world, may have been his friends. The mission will follow Kit throughout the rest of his life, creating ripple effects of tragedy and betrayal — and giving Kit the financial boost he needs to launch a career as a poet and playwright.

I sped through this novel, and loved every minute of it. Kit is a memorable character, acerbic and ambitious and more sensitive than he gives himself credit for. I have a penchant for voicey prose, and A Tip For The Hangman encapsulates everything I love about voice-driven storytelling. Kit— and Epstein — are breathtakingly funny, with a biting, perceptive sense of humor and a swaggering confidence that exudes from every page. The novel occasionally bounces around to other characters when the story requires an outside viewpoint, but it’s Kit’s clever, one-eyebrow-arched, smirking perspective that captured my heart, making the novel’s tragic ending that much more powerful.

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Angela Lashbrook

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.