A DEAD MAN IN DEPTFORD
In a daring romp through history, theology, sex, language, and espionage, the late Burgess (A Mouthful of Air, 1993, etc.) contrives a disarmingly realistic literary thriller with an unlikely sybarite as its hero. The dead man of the title is none other than the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe (or, as Burgess indicates, Merlin or Marlin -- last names were more capriciously assigned in the 16th century), who may or may not have been murdered in a Deptford tavern brawl in 1593. The author of Tamburlaine the Great, Doctor Faustus, and The Jew of Malta has always languished, somewhat unfairly, in Shakespeare's shadow, but Burgess manages to restore a lot of spice to "Kit" Marlowe's reputation. The playwright's homosexuality has been adequately documented, and Burgess knows few scruples in reimagining the blend of ribald glee and illicit melancholy that Kit and his various boyfriends bring to the higher sodomy. He also offers glimpses of their strained, early-modern morals, which emerge from intellectual skirmishes between rote Christian irrationality and pagan Greek and Latin erudition. Though history says little about it, Marlowe may also have done some spying for Protestant Queen Elizabeth, who during her reign was besieged from France, Spain, and Scotland by the Catholic menace -- at any rate, Burgess takes the conceit and runs with it, smuggling the young playwright across the English Channel and up to the Highlands on missions to thwart Elizabeth's scheming usurpers. Along the way, Marlowe learns to smoke from Sir Walter Raleigh, helps Shakespeare get started on Henry VI, Part One, and still finds time to crank out his plays while courting fame, if not wealth. Burgess has mastered, as perhaps only he could, the arch, quasi-poetic diction of the period, along with a welter of details, from clothes to cuisine to the inescapable tyranny that religious elites wielded over everyday life. A fitting final tribute from one great English writer to the genius of another.