BOOK REVIEW / Parts of the Kit: Christopher Marlowe died in a pub brawl 400 years ago. His life and murder were as lurid as any fiction. Four new novels flesh out the poet but not the poetry

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ATHEIST, blasphemer, homosexual, drunkard, spy, the rash perpetrator, according to Thomas Kyd, of 'sudden privy injuries to men': Christopher Marlowe's life was unruly, and three separate eras have looked beyond the work to honour it in their own way.

The Elizabethans killed him. The Victorians barred his memorial from Westminster Abbey on the grounds of his 'acknowledged life and expressions'. And we mark the 400th anniversary of his death with four novels, only one of which - Anthony Burgess's - cares to evoke the immense literary personality and suggest, between the brawls and the intrigue, that to pioneer blank verse on the English stage and to write its first four great tragic plays were meaningful achievements. Marlowe's chief value for the others is as a ready-made murder mystery with enough opportunities for speculative infill to count as fiction.

Ironically, Marlowe has been rendered especially vulnerable to fiction by a coup of investigative research: Leslie Hotson's discovery, in the early 1920s, of the proceedings of the inquest on Marlowe's death. Four men spent most of the fatal day of 30 May in Widow Bull's lodging house in Deptford: Marlowe, Robert Poley and Nicholas Skeres (both secret service agents), and Ingram Frizer, a con man who had been in the service of Marlowe's patron (and probable lover) Thomas Walsingham. According to the survivors, Marlowe 'rested' on a bed after supper while they played backgammon in the same room. At the end of the evening, a row broke out over the bill or 'recknynge', in the heat of which Marlowe sprang from the bed, drew Frizer's dagger from his belt and beat him about the head with the pommel. Struggling to retrieve his weapon, Frizer drove the point of it into Marlowe's skull immediately above the right eye, killing him instantly.

This was good enough for the coroner, but not for the Elizabethanist Charles Nicholl, whose conspiracy theory, The Reckoning, published last year, is now available in paperback (Picador pounds 6.99). Nicholl had the advantage of knowing that Marlowe was at the time under investigation and surveillance by the Privy Council. Earlier in the month, under torture, the playwright Thomas Kyd had testified to his friend's blasphemous opinions and Marlowe had since undergone a preliminary interview. Add Walter Ralegh, who might have been discomfited had Marlowe gone to the rack, add the Earl of Essex, Ralegh's adversary at Court, add the Catholics Marlowe had spied against, and you have half a dozen contending motives for murder ready to be fleshed out as plots.

It may be by chance that Anthony Burgess in A Dead Man in Deptford (Hutchinson pounds 14.99) follows The Reckoning most of the way, for he is careful to present his own version of events as something other than historical truth. His narrator is an actor who, as a boy, had played the queen in the first production of Tamburlaine. But the story he composes 30 years later is largely the product of informed imagination: 'I suppose a heap of happenings that I had no eye to eye knowlege of.' He is thus really an intermediary for Burgess's own supposition, a way of giving it an apt Elizabethan accent. The prose is a judicious pastiche, aping the rhythms of Thomas Nashe, etc, while thinning the dense neologising of the 1590s to the odd verbal surprise, as in the narrator's privileged view of Marlowe with his hose off: 'Of his bared body I observed but little hair, the mane thin above the fairsized thursday.'

It takes a broad imagination to encompass all Marlowe's activities, but Burgess moves with equal relish through pub fights and vomitings, through bright flashes of blasphemy and buggery, to the high talk of mathematics and necromancy in Ralegh's alternative think- tank. Just as admirable are the little strokes of invention which lend plausibility and tension to the climactic day in Deptford: Frizer's creepy repeated forgiveness of a kick in the shins Marlowe had dealt him the previous afternoon; and Marlowe's need of a loan, which gives substance to the row about the bill ('It amounts near enough to the amount you asked to borrow . . . You jest, Kit said, and it is sour. I was invited. The reckoning is not mine'). Room is found amid the thrills for the key event in Marlowe's life: the quiet moment when he struck on the 'mighty' blank verse line as the right medium for Tamburlaine (Burgess even comes up with a cancelled draft in rhyming couplets).

Literature isn't really Judith Cook's thing: investigation is, or was. Her previous book asked Who Killed Hilda Murrell?, and she's found a parallel victim of a state conspiracy for her first novel, The Slicing Edge of Death: Who Killed Christopher Marlowe? (Simon & Schuster pounds 14.99). But she can hardly be said to bring him back to life. Her 'Kit' is scrubbed and shampooed as if for younger readers: 'his hair was silky and well cut and he wore a velvet doublet in the fashionable colour known as tobacco.' Sodomy becomes 'friendship . . . very close friendship'. It is acknowledged that the Thameside air is 'blue with the language of the notoriously foul-mouthed boatmen', but Cook's Privy Council speak like members of another Famous Five ('Hopefully, it would only be for a short time, Kit') and Kit himself comes over like Rupert Bear, exhorting an inmate of Newgate to 'Cheer up, Thomas. You'll soon be out of here. And I promise I'll organise a splendid party to celebrate.'

Occasionally this Kit lapses into rapt recitals of the highlights of Marlowe's verse, as if chosen from a dictionary of quotations, including Faustus's metaphor for his last sunset - 'See, see Christ's blood streams in the firmament' - when he is himself 'staring at the ceiling'. Marlowe surely wouldn't recognise himself in such an underreaching novel.

A lesser and less familiar writer like Thomas Kyd can be appropriated without this sort of embarrassment. Robin Chapman's enthusiastic Christoferus, or Tom Kyd's Revenge (Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 14.99) purports to be Kyd's account of the months following his torture and Marlowe's death, in which he attempts to track down the secret enemy behind their misfortunes. Chapman was once a professional actor, and that experience informs the stage-cockney of his supporting cast: 'Gawd blind me - for a minute I fort this is it, mate, you've copped yer lot. Strufe]' But the dialogue in general smacks less of the stage than of the dressing-room. Kyd's persecutors turn out to be an old Catholic queen ('Ferdy'), a politic priest ('Father Iggy') and a Bunteresque, fur-swathed Dick Baines - a strange apotheosis of the seedy informer of history - who addresses his nemesis variously as 'sausage', 'sweetheart' and 'cherry-pie'. In a novel which is a hundred pages too long some potent imaginative touches are smothered in the chatter and camping-around of this sort of company.

So much for the sort-of-historical Marlowe. Liam Maguire's Icarus Flying (Ormond pounds 5.99) goes its own way, recklessly yoking the playwright to his creation Faustus. Hence 'Marlowe' gets the pox from a prostitute called Helen ('How did you know I was called Helen?') and suffers what seems to be meant as real damnation for his forbidden beliefs. But the book is worth notice for the farthest- fetched theory of events at Deptford since Calvin Hoffman spirited Marlowe out of the back door to go and be Shakespeare. In Maguire's version, Marlowe is only mistakenly believed to be the victim on account of a bad case of Chinese Whispers; the body is really that of a disposable rogue called Christopher Morley: 'In the confusion of the moment, while the stinkard lay on the table, one asked who he was, another said Morley, a third, mishearing, pronounced it Marley, a fourth mumbled Marlar and William Danby cried, 'Is this Christopher Marlowe, scholar and poet. I know him well' . . . And so it was recorded.'

Here Maguire may be missing a trick, for the name actually recorded by the inquest was 'Christopher Morley', just as the playwright's only surviving signature proclaims him 'Marley'. In the days before standard spelling, all names suffered, as Burgess observes, a 'multiplicity of deformation', 'from Shagspaw to Shogspere, from Choxper to Jacquespere'. Still, perhaps Maguire's fantasy is a fair symbol for the sort of licence by which novelists give our name Marlowe to any old stinkard.

Janet Suzman, Antony Sher, Charles Nicholl and others will take part in a public 'service of celebration' of Marlowe at St Nicholas's Church, Deptford, London SE8, on May 30 at 3pm; for details phone the RSC Press Office, 071-382-7121

(Photograph omitted)

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