Poor Christopher Marlowe, dead in a barroom brawl, not yet 30. Things were tough in 1593. But what if Kit didn’t really die?
A writer gets involved in political intrigue and disappears, but publishes brilliant work in the name of a far less talented writer. It goes well until the patsy has the audacity to venture rewrites, and then fresh scripts, and sets out on his own career. It’s the plot of Martin Ritt’s 1976 movie The Front, but the premise has antecedents in the life of Marlowe, at least as Amsterdam-based travel-writer Bolt interprets it. For Marlowe—alias Kit Marlin, alias Tim Larkin—was, as Bolt writes in this lively, speculative biography of the great English playwright, a secret agent in the service of Francis Walsingham, the anti-Catholic spymaster and enforcer for Elizabeth I. Somewhere along the way, Marlowe drifted into heresy himself. To make things worse, on Walsingham’s death and without his protection, he stumbled on a plot on the part of Sir Robert Cecil to gain power; in response, Cecil ordered Marlowe’s assassination, for “any ripples his removal caused could be easily managed.” Bolt’s plot, already worthy of Robert Ludlum, becomes more complicated: He supposes that Marlowe’s friends faked his murder before Cecil could make it real. Marlowe spent the next few years wandering about Catholic Europe and visiting the likes of Cervantes while sending home plays about Veronese teenagers and mad kings, all full of anagrams and acrostics and hidden clues as to the identity of their true author. But Marlowe got no credit for his resoundingly popular plays: Instead, the glory went to one William Shakespeare, whom Marlowe recruited to be his front. And Shakespeare, Bolt avers, was by far the lesser author. Marlowe, who knew his Continental literature and his classics, spoke many languages and was well-traveled—all attainments that Shakespeare, according to his contemporaries, did not have.
A grand entertainment for literary sleuths.