I’ve loved Shakespeare’s Globe, the recreation of the Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames, since it opened in 1997. This year, the programme seems designed for people with an interest in Unlawful Things – not only are they producing Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, but a dramatic recreation of the Treason Trial of Walter Ralegh. So I sent them a copy of my novel, to see if they were interested. This is what happened next.
For three short years as a child, I lived in Cambridge. The bustle of the market in the city centre, the honeyed stone of the university’s ancient colleges and the peaceful flow of the River Cam were mine only until the age of eight, but they are the backdrop to some very happy childhood memories.
I wonder how happy Christopher Marlowe’s memories of his six years at Cambridge were? He arrived at Cambridge University in 1580, a scholarship boy supported by a bequest from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker. As with all the Parker scholars, he attended Corpus Christi College (founded 1352), which had also received Archbishop Parker’s amazing library, containing priceless treasures from the ransacked monasteries of England.
Marlowe might have been acutely aware of his social status and restricted budget, compared to the sons of the nobility who were his fellow students. Perhaps that was what motivated him when, a couple of years later, he was recruited by Queen Elizabeth’s secret service, reporting to spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham. It seems that Cambridge has a long, long history with spying. In addition to his studies and other activities, it’s likely Marlowe wrote his first play, Dido Queen of Carthage, during his student years.
I revisited Cambridge a couple of years ago, entering Corpus Christi College on a lovely September day, when the library was open to the public. My visit wasn’t just prompted by curiosity; I was researching a scene where the two heroes of Unlawful Things visit the Parker Library on the trail of Marlowe’s lost manuscript. I marvelled at the library’s incredible collection, including the sixth century Gospels of Augustine (see left), brought to England by Saint Augustine when he arrived to convert the heathen British to Christianity.
I enjoyed wandering around the lovely Old Court, the humble buildings hidden away behind the impressive Victorian frontage, where the college buildings that Marlowe would have known are preserved. All the time, I tried to see the place through the eyes of my fictional characters, Helen and Richard. They would have loved this, I thought.
Perhaps my early fondness for Cambridge found its way into the novel. I can’t help noticing that the Cambridge section of Unlawful Things is probably the happiest time that I allow Helen and Richard together. A hiatus, a sunny day and a scholarly moment to enjoy the beauty, before it all starts to go so very, very wrong…
For an event that took place almost 850 years ago, Thomas Becket’s death is surprisingly well documented.
Four knights rode to Canterbury Cathedral, shortly after Archbishop Becket returned from a lengthy exile in France. They demanded to speak to him; they claimed to be acting for the King, Henry II. They drew their swords and cut Becket down, leaving him dead on the stone floor.
The murder shocked Europe and outraged the church. Henry II is alleged to have signed Becket’s death warrant with the hasty words: “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” He swiftly declared his repentance, walked barefoot into Canterbury and prayed for forgiveness. Pope Alexander III declared Becket a saint. Saint Thomas Becket was buried in Canterbury Cathedral, in an ornate golden shrine studded with precious stones. Rumours quickly began that the saint worked healing miracles, and the pilgrims started to come. Thousands of them, down the ages, remembered best now in Geoffrey Chaucer’s epic poem The Canterbury Tales.
What happened next is less well-documented. We know that Henry VIII, in his own bitter battle with the Catholic Church, declared Becket a traitor, and had the shrine destroyed. What happened to Becket’s remains? Nobody really knows, and that mystery is a key part of the plot of Unlawful Things.
So I was excited to see that Saint Thomas Becket’s remains are back in the news – or at least, his blood-stained tunic is. The tunic was given to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, some 50 years before the shrine at Canterbury was destroyed. The basilica will loan the relic to Canterbury for an exhibition to mark 850 years since the saint’s death, in 2020.
Two years ago, a sliver of his elbow joint toured Britain, attracting crowds. When I started to write Unlawful Things, I wondered if modern Britain would be in the slightest bit interested in what had happened to the saint’s remains. Happily, it looks as if Becket can still pull a crowd, eight centuries after his death.
But what does Thomas Becket have to do with Christopher Marlowe, modern day London and Unlawful Things? Sorry, you’ll have to read the book to find out!
Unlawful Things published one week ago, and I’m thrilled that the reviews are overwhelmingly positive. There’s nothing like a good review to put a smile on my face. At the time of writing, the first nine reviews published on Amazon UK all gave the book five stars.
The best thing was that people seemed to really get what I wanted to do with the book – to tell a gripping, exciting story, and to tell it well.
Here are a few of the highlights:
In the week that Unlawful Things is finally published, I made a little pilgrimage back to the church yard where it all began. St Nicholas Church in Deptford, tucked away in Deptford Green, is a tranquil corner these days.
But in May 1593, it witnessed the burial of the mercurial, astonishing playwright Christopher Marlowe, dead at the age of 29. As his friend, the printer Edward Blount, wrote to his patron, Thomas Walsingham, it was there that “we brought his breathless body to the earth.”
Marlowe’s death – he was stabbed after a dinner in a house in nearby Deptford Strand – was the starting point when I began to think about the plot that became Unlawful Things. The novel’s opening scene takes place in contemporary London, with another man stabbed in the church yard where Marlowe is buried. Although I used to live nearby, it had been many years since I visited.
It was a glorious, sunny day, the sun filtering through the plane trees and making the famous gate post skulls look almost cheerful. I was surprised and touched to see a little leather-bound notebook propped up on the plaque which commemorates Marlowe. Inside, people from all over the world had left messages for him, about how much his work meant to them. I couldn’t resist adding a few lines, signed by my novel’s protagonist, Helen Oddfellow. Take a look if you ever go there; you might like to see what she said.
Unlawful Things will be published today. I have a long list of “thank you’s” to everyone who has helped me get to this point. But I shouldn’t forget to thank Christopher Marlowe, whose eternal plays and poetry set me on this path.
Finding the right title for my novel was a real challenge. I’d written at least three drafts before I managed to alight on a title I was comfortable with.
For a time it was going to be The Marlowe Connection, until someone pointed out that could be mistaken for a book about railway travel in Buckinghamshire. For a while I considered Cut is the Branch, a line from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. But then… might someone think it was a gardening manual about pruning trees? Or that we were back to railways again, with a critique of cuts to rail services?
But Marlowe did supply the title I finally alighted on, Unlawful Things. The full quote, from the epilogue to Doctor Faustus, has the chorus moralising on Faustus, whose pact with Mephistopheles results in him being dragged away by demons to hell:
“Faustus is gone: regard his hellish fall,
Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise,
Only to wonder at unlawful things,
Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
To practice more than heavenly power permits.”
In other words, profit from Faustus’ example and stay well away from the ‘unlawful’ necromancy he used to pry into secrets that should only be known by ‘heavenly power’.
I liked the title because one of the themes of the book is the price we risk paying when we try to uncover secrets. And Unlawful Things has an unsettling, mysterious ring to it, which is always an asset in a mystery novel.
As a journalist, prying into unlawful things is pretty much in my job description, so I don’t have much sympathy for the idea that we should all just mind our own business. Humanity has risked much and gained much from the pursuit of its curiosity, down the ages. But there can be a high price to pay, whether it’s Marie Curie succumbing to cancer after discovering radium, or contemporary journalists murdered in the pursuit of corruption and organised crime. One of the questions I wanted to explore was, how high a price should we be prepared to pay?
Unlawful Things will be available to buy on Amazon next week, at a very reasonable price. I do hope you’ll take the opportunity to discover it for yourself.