Review: A Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein


Christopher Marlowe, a brilliant aspiring playwright, is pulled into the duplicitous world of international espionage on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I. A many-layered historical thriller combining state secrets, intrigue, and romance.

England, 1585. In Kit Marlowe’s last year at Cambridge, he receives an unexpected visitor: Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, who has come with an unorthodox career opportunity. Her Majesty’s spies are in need of new recruits, and Kit’s flexible moral compass has drawn their attention. Kit, a scholarship student without money or prospects, accepts the offer, and after his training the game is on. Kit is dispatched to the chilly manor where Mary, Queen of Scots is under house arrest, to act as a servant in her household and keep his ear to the ground for a Catholic plot to put Mary on the throne.

While observing Mary, Kit learns more than he bargained for. The ripple effects of his service to the Crown are far-reaching and leave Kit a changed man. But there are benefits as well. The salary he earns through his spywork allows him to mount his first play, and over the following years, he becomes the toast of London’s raucous theater scene. But when Kit finds himself reluctantly drawn back into the uncertain world of espionage, conspiracy, and high treason, he realizes everything he’s worked so hard to attain–including the trust of the man he loves–could vanish before his very eyes.

My Review

I went into this book knowing absolutely nothing about Christopher Marlowe except that he was a contemporary of Shakespeare. What a surprise! At least I didn’t have to worry about historical accuracy, since I didn’t know any better. Though I do know somewhat more about Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, and here I wasn’t disappointed. I thought he and Cecil were very believable, so I was able to accept the Marlowe story as well. Since a spy’s life is shadowed in mystery anyway, why couldn’t these things have happened? Marlow got sucked into this shadow world during his college years, when he seemed singularly unsuited to academia—though his genius at storytelling apparently was in overdrive, so to speak. Initially sent to spy on Mary Queen of Scots as the imprisoned queen plotted treason, Marlow discovered he had a propensity for this dangerous occupation. At the same time, his conscience tormented him; he felt like a murderer, betraying those who trusted him. Surviving this first challenge, he became intimate with his college friend Thomas, whose love gave him a lifeline for the next several years when Walsingham’s demands threatened to overwhelm him. Marlow had a love/hate relationship with his spying profession and tried to protect Thomas from the darker side of his life—with mixed results. The farther into the book we read, the darker the story. Poor Marlow, who may be a rake and a troublemaker, has a good heart and is not morally suited for this life of double-dealing. But it seems he can’t extricate himself. All the while he puts out unconventional blockbuster plays that shake the Elizabethan stage. He’s a very interesting character who makes a mess of his life because he seems to be addicted to living on the edge.


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