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The first Cambridge spy: A Fine Madness, by Alan Judd, reviewed

15 May 2021

9:00 AM

15 May 2021

9:00 AM

A Fine Madness Alan Judd

Simon & Schuster, pp.256, 14.99

For his 15th novel, the espionage writer Alan Judd turns his hand to the mystery of Christopher Marlowe’s death. The result is never less than engrossing, with Judd putting the scanty known facts about the great playwright to ingenious use.

The story is narrated from the King’s Bench prison by Thomas Phelipps 30 years after Marlowe’s fatal stabbing in a Deptford rooming-house brawl. Phelipps is good company, a master cryptographer and key employee of the spy-master Francis Walsingham, yet a self-proclaimed ‘simple man’ who yearns to marry and settle down. These contradictions help make him as fascinating as the mercurial Marlowe, who he’s sent to recruit at Cambridge. Phelipps immediately senses that Marlowe needs ‘protection from himself… Expounding heresies excited him’. Yet he’s powerless to save him. A jejune loose cannon, Marlowe is already thrillingly amoral. A natural anarchist and atheist, with a zeal for disruption, he’s also ‘a cat that walked alone, always with something withheld’. A bad end feels inevitable.

From here, Judd leads us through Marlowe’s shadow career as a spy, teasing out vivid scenes from the historical record. While Tamburlaine is already causing a stir in London, Marlowe is sent by Walsingham to smoke out two recusants at an inn near Oxford, with Phelipps as his handler, using the bole of an oak tree as a dead drop — a droll nod to future espionage techniques. Later, Marlowe becomes a carrier pigeon for the state, delivering communiqués to Europe without knowing their contents. As Phelipps dryly notes: ‘Agents often never know the parts they play… Intelligencing is like war, in that anyone lacking sureness of aim pays a price.’

Luckily, Marlowe’s aim is always true, at least until he becomes involved with Poley, Skeres and Frizer, the men who will be present in the fateful rooming house in May 1593. All three are aligned to powerful men with different political agendas: Walsingham, the Earl of Essex and Robert Cecil, Lord Burghley’s scheming hunchback son. When Cecil reveals to Phelipps the secret plans for the succession of James I, with Marlowe involved in the line of communication, the murky machinations of the different factions ensure the playwright is assassinated.

Or is he? Judd’s coup is to question whether they really were machinations at all, or just coincidences. Or even the fallout from a hidden homosexual relationship between Marlowe and Walsingham’s cousin, the dedicatee of the posthumously published Hero and Leander. The ramifications are endless, the answers few. As Phelipps comments: ‘Most of us are like fishes in the lives of others, a silvery flank glimpsed once and never seen again.’ Fortunately, Judd keeps us guessing until the last pages of this taut, clever, thought-provoking thriller.

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