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

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

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.

Below, read my fascinating discussion with debut author Allison Epstein about the real history of Christopher Marlowe, the lies people in Elizabethan England were forced to tell to survive, and a controversial stance on orange juice.

The Smoker. ca. 1623–25, Frans Hals

From what I understand, Christopher Marlowe (known in this novel as Kit) was, indeed, a spy, though you took some liberties for the sake of the story. What do we know about the real life spy that was Christopher Marlowe, and how does that compare to the Kit we meet on the page?

Imagine taking a standard biography and censoring two-thirds of the pages, and that’s pretty much what we know about the historical Christopher Marlowe. There’s widespread agreement he was a spy who worked under Sir Francis Walsingham between 1585-ish and 1593. Beyond that… Elizabethan record-keeping for non-nobles was not great, and spies tended not to keep detailed daily journals for obvious reasons. We do know Marlowe was frequently absent from Cambridge in the last year of his degree, presumably on spy business. The Privy Council famously wrote a letter to excuse his absences, which implies he’d made some pretty lofty connections for a grad student.

The sketchy details left me room for literary license, which I’ll be the first to admit I took. I wrote Kit a lead role in uncovering the Babington Plot spearheaded by Mary, Queen of Scots, but there’s no evidence for this. Marlowe’s spy career started about the time the Babington Plot came to a head, though, which is how I justify the thought experiment to my historian friends. The historical Marlowe probably spied on Catholics in Northern France instead, or maybe surveilled Arbella Stuart at Hardwick Hall. I nodded to these theories in the book, as Easter eggs for my fellow nerds.

Personality-wise, Marlowe’s contemporaries wrote about his scandalousness and free-thinking — sometimes as a compliment, often not. If anything, the record errs on the side of making Marlowe a walking scandalmonger (think: queer Lord Flashheart from Blackadder). One of my goals for this book was to balance that picture out. Sure, the quote “all they that love not tobacco and boys are fools” paints a vivid picture of the guy who said it, but I wanted to get at the wants, hopes, and fears under and around that.

Kit is a beautifully well-realized character; I can fully imagine him engaging in situations that aren’t in the book, or picture him at a pub interacting with friends. How did you approach crafting his personality?

Thank you! Kit’s personality was the one part of this book that came together quickly. I started with his character and shaped the rest of the book to fit. And the more I researched the historical Marlowe, the more sense he made. Scrappy scholarship kid with an impulsive streak, ambition for days, and a bagful of secrets: my source material might be 400 years old, but there’s something very modern about that, and I identified with him in a lot of messy and complicated ways. In a weird way, Kit and I grew up together: I was Kit’s age at the beginning of the book when I started, and I’ll be his age at the end when it releases.

Mechanically, the most fun part of my character development process is what I call the “self-fanfiction” approach. I write a bunch of side scenes that are never meant to go in the book, for extra practice living in a character’s head. I’ve got at least 200 unusable pages of Kit getting into trouble in grammar school, hanging out at play rehearsals, competing in the Great British Bake-Off… (In my defense, 2020 was a long year. And yes, Kit comes last in the technical.)

Many characters in this book struggle to balance the identities they must present to the outside world with their own internal truth. Walsingham disguises a sympathetic heart; Catholics hide in plain sight; Mary and her supporters carry out her ambition under the cloak of darkness. Kit, in particular, juggles a multitude of conflicting masks — spy, rebel, student, brother, lover, playwright. Was this something you were intending to explore with the novel?

I’m really glad you asked this! It wasn’t an idea I brought to the first draft, but it kept emerging as I wrote, and I decided to lean in. In an authoritarian society like Tudor England, where every belief and thought needs to be sanctioned by both the church and the crown, it’s not just spies and conspirators who have to hide their true intentions — almost everyone is lying about something to keep themselves safe.

Part of me thinks that’s why this was such a golden age for espionage in England. Everyone had been trained from the cradle up to know what secrets had to be kept from whom, and what truths could be spoken only in private. I mean, the state-mandated religion changed four times in less than 100 years — at some point, every single English person could have been arrested for heresy unless they compromised or learned to lie. So in a way, everyone had their mask on all the time, trying to work out “Can I trust this person? Which version of me is it safe to be in front of them?”

(Draw any modern parallels you like to that question, by the way!)

That’s why I feel a deep affection for every character in the book. I never thought of any of them as acting out of malice, even when the masks they wear are repulsive. They’re all playing the same impossible game: stand up for what you believe in, while sacrificing as little of your fundamental nature as possible. Some people, like Mary, sacrifice very little, and they pay the price. Others, like Walsingham, give up a lot more. I think there’s tragedy to both.

What’s your go-to breakfast drink? What’s a beverage you wouldn’t want to drink at breakfast (or, possibly, ever, depending)?

I’m definitely a coffee-with-breakfast person. The first time I drank coffee was in my high school French class, when my teacher brought in a gallon milk jug of café au lait as “cultural immersion.” That Styrofoam cup remains the greatest cup of coffee I’ve ever had. I’m sure Proust would have a lot to say about this specific taste-memory, but I don’t know what exactly.

On the other hand, I believe orange juice is terrible and should never be consumed. America’s been running a con for decades to sell orange juice as a breakfast beverage. Don’t fall for it.

A Tip For The Hangman is available now from Bookshop (or your local bookstore!).

(A note: I use affiliate links on my blog posts. By making a purchase through the links in my posts, you’re helping support my work.)

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.

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