The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe

by Charles Nicholl. Harcourt Brace, 432 pages. $24.95.
Christopher Marlowe, admired poet, successful playwright, homosexual, and suspected atheist, was killed in 1593, officially in a brawl over a bar bill, and his killer was acquitted on grounds of selfdefense. The details of the affair were lost for centuries in unexamined records and since their rediscovery have raised scholarly eyebrows, including those of Mr. Nicholl. He has done a staggering amount of research on Marlowe’s companions at that fatal meeting. There were three of them—Ingram Frizer. Nicholas Skeres, and Robert Poley. The party assembled at about ten in the morning, not at a tavern but in the house of a respectable widow who, presumably, did not accommodate uncredentialed riffraff. So who were Marlowe’s companions? Two, like Marlowe, were or had been employed in the intelligence service operated by Sir Francis Walsingham, and Frizer, the killer, was a servant (in the Elizabethan sense of any salaried employee) of Thomas Walsingham, who had also done secret-service work for his senior cousin. The group certainly looks like a gathering—or should it be a snoop? —of spies. Mr. Nicholl has discovered a great deal about the Walsingham intelligence network and the kind of people included in it. and the greater part of his book presents a fascinating gallery of informers, entrappers, double agents, and plain rogues. He believes that Marlowe’s death was calculated murder, arranged because the poet threatened to become a spanner in the works of an elaborate unofficial plot. The theory is possible, even plausible, but as Mr. Nicholl acknowledges, his evidence falls short of proof. Marlowe had a record of violence. The other three did not. It remains conceivable that the killing was indeed tipsy self-defense against a dangerously belligerent drunk, for in the eight or more hours they spent together, those people cannot have stuck to water. No sensible Londoner willingly touched that poisonous stuff.