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Fascinating twist on an old story
on 3 March 2011
In The Marlowe Conspiracy, Scarsbrook draws us into Elizabethan England and the double life of Christopher Marlowe, or Kit. As a spy for his patron, Thomas Walsingham, Kit has given his allegiance to his country and his heart to the stage, in spite of recent jadedness over the limitations of his craft.
As far as conspiracies go, the standard formula goes something like this: innocent hero finds himself in trouble; innocent hero runs away from trouble; hero and confederates uncover an increasingly messy plot; hero saves the day and lives to tell the tale. Scarsbrook turns this step-by-step process on its head, as the suspected plot is actually more intricate than the real one, and the truth behind the conspiracy is revealed to the reader right from the get-go. In spite of this foreknowledge, the storyline remains intriguing, with surprises and stressful situations that are wholly unexpected. Seemingly unimportant information becomes crucial in later scenes, forcing the reader to pay attention. Also, taking a larger view, parts of the tale coincide quite well with the real Marlowe's Hero and Leander.
The author paints Marlowe as a friendly man with a good sense of humor but a terrible temper. As a spy, he has both physical skill and mental resourcefulness, and both prove vital as the situation around him worsens. In spite of his pride and his occasional bouts of arrogance, he is a likable protagonist who makes you urge him to succeed while shaking your fist at the villainy of his enemies. In fact, Scarsbrook's renderings of both Marlowe and Walsingham are delightfully human, and the changes in their characters interesting to behold.
The tension between Audrey and Kit is fantastic, and their hesitancy and internal struggle are in keeping with such a conservative society. The love scene is a bit hard to swallow, however, given its setting and the nature of their relationship before. I can see the importance in terms of hardening Walsingham's attitude towards Kit. All the same, the insertion of the act itself feels a bit contrived.
Equally difficult to absorb is the start of the friendship between Kit and William Shakespeare. Once it is underway, it is believable enough, but the start of it feels rushed, lacking the instant chemistry that would account for such suddenness. Something about Will's deportment also had me picturing him as a teenager, and Marlowe as the experienced adult. This could be due to the forced growth curve of espionage; even so, it was hard to imagine that they are the same age.
Scarsbrook's writing is comfortable, and his pacing excellent as he varies quick fist fights with slower, ponderous segments. My chief complaint, however, is a fondness of apostrophes that borders on gluttony. Instances of "you're" instead of "your" aside, the manuscript is peppered with pluralized words or varying verbs that are given apostrophes for no reason that I can fathom. I lost count by the time that I was ten percent in, and the quality of the author's actual word usage and phrasing was the only thing tempering my vexation.
In The Marlowe Conspiracy, the author gives a colorful tale that cleverly coordinates fact and rumor with his own imaginings. The story could very well stand on its own, even without the historical tie-in, as a well-written piece of historical fiction. More proofreading would likely be beneficial, however, as would a less trigger-happy pinky.
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