A Prisoner in Malta: A Christopher Marlowe Mystery - Phillip DePoy

Going to the library on a lazy Saturday is a dangerous proposition, especially without a mission. Unlike a bookstore, at the library you can have all the books - or at least according to the card holder guidelines, one hundred check-outs at a time.

Librarians are worse than any bookseller too, they entice you the way no sales table can -- by creating displays, like 'Fall in love with First Lines' and 'If you liked this, you'll like that'. Something that just begs you to investigate. I succumbed to one such display and picked up a book whose title and cover sang to me...The English Agent. Scanning the inside cover, I found that it was book two - I quickly remedied that problem (reading in order is a must) by locating a digital copy of A Prisoner in Malta in Overdrive and made my way, practically whistling, to check out.

One might wonder why this book called to me - I'm not a history buff and have never really ventured into a ton of historical fiction either. BUT, I do have a passing interest in Shakespeare and a couple of months ago I came across this article that gave more credence to Marlowe's influence on Shakespeare, even attributing co-authorship of some work. I've always known of some theories along these lines, but this in particular is what was floating around the surface of my brain when I ran across this book.

In truth, I'm probably an excellent fit for this book - I'm someone who's not overly familiar and who is willing to let go of accuracy in the name of a good time. The mystery is mostly based around a true plot to poison Queen Elizabeth I...for reasons, mostly religious ones:

"In point of fact, Marlowe’s father had been born just after King Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy, the law that established the English King, and not a foreign pope, as head of the church. The Anglican Communion was in all other ways indistinguishable from the Catholic—confusing times for the religious in England. But by the time Henry’s daughter Elizabeth was on the throne, that confusion had been removed: it was illegal to be a Catholic in England. The Pope’s subterranean war to pull England back into the fold was met by Elizabeth’s iron determination to uphold her father’s law, provoking the most savage plots and heartbreaking betrayals in the history of the country. So Marlowe was absolutely unwilling to admit any religious affiliation, especially to such rude strangers."

Major historical players are present, like Dr. Rodrigo Lopez:

“Dr. Lopez?” Pygott jeered, recognizing the famous name. “The Portuguese Jew bastard what made poisons for Robert Dudley?”

And if that name isn't familiar, perhaps this fellow, the original spymaster:

"Sir Francis Walsingham, principal secretary to Queen Elizabeth, was the man in charge of Her Majesty’s foreign, domestic, and religious policy. His reputation was towering, and Marlowe found himself in reluctant awe. A rabid Protestant, he had, almost single-handedly, enabled exploration of foreign lands, established English colonies across the globe, and created the greatest navy in the world."

And, of course, a young but brilliant student and aspiring poet/playwright, Christopher Marlowe:

“Marlowe,” he said. His voice was unexpectedly melodious, like the low notes of a viola da gamba. Marlowe nodded once and, with some effort, held his tongue. “We require your services.” Marlowe swallowed. “The Queen and I,” Walsingham continued.
“I—I’m not certain—sir,” Marlowe stammered.
“My men have been watching you for two years,” Walsingham interrupted, “in Canterbury and in Cambridge. You are a remarkable young person. We believe that you have certain talents which will serve your country well.” “Talents?” His voice sounded strange in that room. “You are unsurpassed in your ability at using words to persuade,” Walsingham began, “and if your words fail, you are likewise adept with a dagger and a rapier. You rarely exhibit fear. You never avoid confrontation. Your theatrical talents make you a man able to play many parts. Your amorous exploits are legendary among your companions. And you are a spectacularly convincing liar.”

One of the things I loved about this writing was how artfully crafted it was - carefully weaving history and intention into the fiction. Even though I'm not even remotely intimate with Marlowe's factual personal history, what I do know is that he died young in a fight over a bar tab - I think it's a fair assumption that someone who dies over something so silly is someone who has faulty fear and confrontation synapses.

DePoy is not only thoughtful, but he's funny. For me, the storytelling was a reminiscent mixture of several movies that I adore, “Shakespeare in Love”, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”, and the “The Princess Bride”. DePoy weaves the creation of Marlowe’s poem “The Passionate Shepard to his Love” into the story while he’s sleuthing, there is some nearly absurd humor with clever word play in the dialogue exchanges, and even, a laughably inconceivable villain.

All the while, the action and mystery never stop – it’s almost ridiculous in how it never stops. The turns and twists abound and character after character are introduced. In fact, DePoy quips:

“Well,” Marlowe allowed, “the possibility (view spoiler)[of Tin’s (hide spoiler)] being the killer had been building in my mind for some time. First, I systematically eliminated all other suspects.”
“By which you mean you guessed incorrectly several times.”
“Yes,” Marlowe plunged ahead,”

Though the journey is truly the long way around, all the groundwork is there to solve this plot. Personally, it seemed there was purpose in such a long journey, the purpose of showing the breadth of turmoil and intrigue possible for the period. For this reason it did drag a smidge in the middle but this could easily be a symptom of how quickly I consumed the book – I raced through it in less than a day. I could say how a smidge more attention to atmospheric detail would have been swell to really land us in Renaissance England, but I can’t fault the dialogue heavy narrative for a character that was himself, a playwright.

Overall, I pretty much adored this read and might even compliment the next librarian I see for their book-pushing ways. The English Agent is on my night stand for soonish consumption, and in the meantime as a once upon a time thespian myself, these Christopher Marlowe words will stick with me:

“Theatre is the truest metaphor of life we human beings have yet invented. Better: this life is a play, you understand?”

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