Written by MJ Trow — ‘Everything or nothing, which is it to be?’ one of the characters asks at one point in MJ Trow’s latest historical novel, Crimson Rose. The author certainly seems to have made the decision to go for broke and throw everything at this story. He has crammed this crime novel about Kit Marlowe and Elizabethan England full of historical figures and anecdotes, colourful period detail and sly references for today’s reader. You have to admire such verve and panache.
For those familiar with MJ Trow’s work, this should come as no surprise. The author is a historian by vocation, as well as a keen amateur thespian. He has written more than 25 novels featuring three very different characters and time periods. They include the late Victorian Lestrade, the plodding inspector in Sherlock Holmes; a grumpy post-war schoolteacher called Maxwell; and the Elizabethan playwright and occasional spy, Christopher Marlowe.
It’s 1587 and Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great (Part Two) is about to open at the Rose Theatre in London. The opening night, however, ends in uproar after a member of the audience is shot with a musket fired by a bit-part player from on stage. The name of the actor holding the gun? Will Shakespeare, once Shaxsper, from Stratford-on-Avon. When it emerges that the victim was his landlady, he is imprisoned in the Clink.
Suave Kit Marlowe, with his experience doing investigation work on the side, believes that there is something more going on here than a mere lovers’ spat. Why were so many visitors showing up at the landlady’s house at strange hours? What is the connection to the body of a tobacconist found floating in the River Thames? And why is the Queen’s favourite spy, Walsingham, equally interested in a dubious money-lending operation and in the incident at the Rose Theatre?
Although the historical details are quite accurate, there is no old-fashioned, flowery language employed in Crimson Rose. The characters use resolutely modern words and idioms, even slang, which can at first seem disconcerting if you expect language a little more antique from a historical novel. Once you accept this style, however, there are plenty of contemporary allusions to make you chuckle. For instance, ferrymen make rude comments about venturing ‘south of the river’ at night, much like cab drivers do nowadays.
The financial backers of the play rub their hands with glee as audience figures and earnings go up following the tragedy. Rivalries between great actors such as Ned Alleyn and Richard Burbage (whom nobody yet takes seriously) are depicted with great humour, while Shakespeare appears as a rather lily-livered actor with dreams of becoming a playwright. There are plenty of arch references to historical events or people, such as the magical Dr John Dee, Robert Greene who cannot write a decent play despite his university degree, and Walsingham and his notorious rackmasters. You don’t need to get all of the historical allusions to enjoy the story, but it will certainly enrich your experience if you have a little bit of background context, as the author does not waste too much time explaining it.
Humour does not often have a starring role in historical crime fiction. One notable exception which comes to mind is Lindsey Davis’s series about Falco set in Imperial Rome, but there aren’t many more like it. So, if you like your history to be spiced with murder and wit, you will find the escapist MJ Trow series with Christopher Marlowe a worthy addition to your bookshelves.
Creme de la Crime
CFL Rating: 4 Stars