A Tip for the Hangman: A Novel

A Tip for the Hangman: A Novel

by Allison Epstein
A Tip for the Hangman: A Novel

A Tip for the Hangman: A Novel

by Allison Epstein


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Notes From Your Bookseller

The spy thriller, queer historical fiction mashup of your dreams, A Tip for the Hangman is a literary tour-de-force from debut author Allison Epstein. Meticulously researched and beautifully crafted, this novel takes you inside the spy network of Tudor England and illuminates the splendid, twisted lives the spies themselves lead.

An Elizabethan espionage thriller in which playwright Christopher Marlowe spies on Mary, Queen of Scots while navigating the perils of politics, theater, romance—and murder.

England, 1585. In Kit Marlowe's last year at Cambridge, he is approached by Queen Elizabeth's spymaster offering an unorthodox career opportunity: going undercover to intercept a Catholic plot to put Mary, Queen of Scots on Elizabeth's throne. Spying on Queen Mary turns out to be more than Kit bargained for, but his salary allows him to mount his first play, and over the following years he becomes the toast of London's raucous theater scene. But when Kit finds himself reluctantly drawn back into the world of espionage and treason, he realizes everything he's worked so hard to attain—including the trust of the man he loves—could vanish in an instant.
Pairing modern language with period detail, Allison Epstein brings Elizabeth's lavish court, Marlowe's colorful theater troupe, and the squalor of sixteenth-century London to vivid, teeming life. At the center of the action is Kit himself—an irrepressible, irreverent force of nature.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385546713
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/09/2021
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

ALLISON EPSTEIN earned her MFA in fiction from Northwestern University and a BA in creative writing and Renaissance literature from the University of Michigan. A Michigan native, she now lives in Chicago, where she works as a copywriter for clients in higher education and the arts. When not writing, she enjoys good theater, bad puns, and fancy jackets.  A Tip for the Hangman is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt


Without tobacco, Kit knew, he would never survive Cambridge. The university would have destroyed him otherwise: the relentless pace, the always-­rising stakes. One arcane lecture after another, endless pages of Greek readings that became no less bewildering with time. And beneath it all, the pervasive fear of falling behind, of falling to pieces, of publicly confirming what the fellows all privately believed: that whatever scholarship the master of the college had conferred upon him, Kit Marlowe didn’t belong here, should never have come. But once a wisp of smoke curled up in his lungs, none of that mattered. At least for the night.

Tobacco unwound his nerves like a worn shirt, turned soft and loose, trailing easy threads to nowhere. It changed nothing, of course. Kit’s presence at Corpus Christi College remained as provisional as ever, the fellows’ condescension as irritating. But as the smoke drifted between his lips and up to the ceiling, a shimmer in the setting sun, that seemed peripheral, manageable even. He settled against the bedpost with a sigh. Through the haze, his room felt more like Elysium than the half-­furnished dormitory of a master’s student.

Particularly given the company.

Tom slouched on the other end of Kit’s bed, his back against the wall beside the window. Leaning sideways, he grasped for the dark glass bottle resting against Kit’s thigh. The movement brought him into the beam of sunlight and made his almost-­silver hair shine gold. His outstretched fingers missed his target by half an inch.

“Come on,” Tom said, voice strained with the stretch. “Don’t make me beg.”

When Kit passed the bottle over, the ends of Tom’s fingers brushed Kit’s palm, causing a momentary thrill that Kit tried hard not to think about. Tom took a healthy swallow, then grimaced and looked at Kit as if he’d been tricked into drinking piss.

“God’s blood, this is terrible.”

Kit laughed. Tom was more right than he knew. “You want better, you buy it,” he said, letting his next drag linger.

He expected Tom to resume his former slouch against the wall, now he’d realized the bottle wasn’t worth sharing, but Tom, intentionally or not, had instead moved closer. He sat with one leg bent to his chest, his biceps on his knee, watching the bottle with suspicion. With his back against the window now, the light cast his face in shadow but illuminated his edges, making him look like a fresco or a gilded saint. There remained less than a foot between them. If Kit hadn’t known better, he’d swear Tom was doing this on purpose, just to toy with him. He couldn’t think straight like this.

“Do you know what this tastes like?” Tom said, addressing the bottle.

Kit did. He grinned. “Salvation?”

Tom blinked. “Communion wine,” he said. “Honestly.”

“God’s blood indeed,” Kit said. He ducked the half-­hearted blow Tom aimed at his head. “If Rector Harvey doesn’t notice, what’s the harm?”

“You wouldn’t,” Tom said. “You’re lying.”

“I never.” Kit pressed one hand to his chest in melodramatic offense.

Tom raised his eyebrows.

“All right,” Kit said, ceding the point. “But I wouldn’t lie with you.”

The words had barely left his mouth before Kit wanted to die for having said them. What right did he have to consider himself a poet when he couldn’t even form a sentence to his best friend without courting disaster? His ungodly handsome best friend. The one sitting six inches from him, backlit in gold.

As Tom tilted his head, the shadows on his face shifted, leaving one plane in shadow and one bathed in yellow. “Wouldn’t you?” he asked. “Never took you for a man with scruples. I’d lie with you, if I had to.”

Kit flushed. He didn’t know if this was from embarrassment or something else, and he refused to interrogate the question. Tom’s expression was unreadable, as if he had never heard of such a thing as double entendre.

God and Christ. To be tortured by a preposition.

“I . . .” Kit began, praying he’d find the end of the sentence once he started it.

The door opened without a knock. Kit swore through a cloud of tobacco smoke and leapt off the bed, widening the distance between them from six inches to five feet. Tom lunged across the mattress and seized the bottle of wine. He’d stashed it between his back and the wall by the time the door opened fully, admitting a copper-­haired young man who seemed taken aback by the violence of Kit’s glare. Kit would have given anything not to have this particular student in his room at this moment, but he took a measured sort of hope in noting that Tom looked as annoyed by the interruption as he felt.

“For God’s sake, Nick,” Kit said. “Man invented doors for a reason.”

“Good to see you too, Kit,” Nick said. He pushed past Kit and pulled out the room’s sole chair, straddling it backward. “Tom. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“And yet . . .” Tom abandoned the attempt to hide the bottle and took an exasperated drink.

Kit directed his eyes heavenward. Granted, the evening had been a disaster long before Nick Skeres showed up, but at least that disaster had potential. Leaving the door open—lest Nick forget the way back out—Kit perched on the desk and folded his legs beneath him.

“I thought you were going to town,” Tom said.

“I will,” Nick agreed. “First, Kit is lending me his essay on the Life of Pyrrhus.”

“I am?”

If Kit had ever made such a promise, he had no memory of it, but Nick’s presumption wasn’t surprising. The scholarship that had allowed Kit to attend Cambridge these past five years amounted to a sort of eternal probation. Fall behind and the college would rescind his funds, which would find him out on the street in a week. Nick, knowing this, read Kit’s diligence as a standing invitation to swipe passages from any given essay.

“Yes,” Nick said. He leaned his forearms on the back of the chair and rested his chin on them with an expectant air. “Now, come on. I have places to be.”

“Who is it this time?” Tom asked, without interest. “Susanna? Joan?”

“Eleanor.” Nick winked, which only strengthened Kit’s urge to punch him. “So I’m in a hurry. Let me look at yours, and I’ll be gone in a minute.”

Tom and Kit exchanged a glance. If you really would lie with me, Kit’s side of the glance said, start now, because I intend to lie like you’ve never seen. Tom smiled, a half expression Nick didn’t notice, and nodded.

“I haven’t started,” Kit said to Nick with a shrug.

Nick stared. “This is the essay due in twelve hours, yes?”

“Kit and I are a little behind,” Tom said, picking up the lie.

Kit nodded, with a stab at a self-­deprecating smile. Self-­deprecation was well out of his range, usually, but at a stretch he could fake it. “We were settling in for a night of Greek and—”

“Wine and tobacco?” Nick frowned, looking from the bottle in Tom’s hand to the pipe in Kit’s.

Kit’s liar’s code was predicated on a single rule: conviction. People believe a confident liar before they believe a nervous honest man. “Yes,” he said, without missing a beat. “Call it inspiration.”

Nick scowled. His chin slumped down farther until his arm obscured the bottom half of his face. “Don’t do this to me, Kit,” he said, voice muffled from within his own elbow. “Just let me copy out the less-­brilliant bits. I’ll pay you, if that’s what you want.”

Kit felt his shoulders tense without meaning them to. Money. That was all gentlemen’s sons like Nick thought about. As if Kit’s mind could be whored out for two groats a night because his father made shoes. Cambridge life had changed him after all: not long ago, he’d have punched Nick for the insinuation.

“I don’t want your money,” Kit said. “If you deserved help, I’d give it.”

Tom, the tips of his ears reddening, had found something fascinating on the back of his left hand. Kit wanted to believe his discomfort came from sympathy, but it was more likely that Tom wanted a graceful way to exit before this sniping devolved into a genuine fight.

“I—” Nick began.

Tom raised a hand, cutting him off. “Listen.”

Through the open door, rapid footfalls sounded against the stone beyond. Someone was coming. Someone with a purpose, judging by the pace, and someone close.

For God’s sake. The smoke must have drifted through the open door. If Nick got them expelled, Kit’s ghost would haunt Nick’s across the centuries. “Open the window,” he said.

Tom twisted around to fling open the window, while Nick snatched the bottle from him and dropped to his knees. He nearly vanished beneath the bed, re-­emerging empty-­handed seconds later. Kit leaned over and thrust the smoking end of his pipe into the washbasin. The scent of cheap tobacco languished on the air. He coughed, clearing smoke from his throat.

“Kit,” Tom said sharply. Paler than thirty seconds ago, he nodded over Kit’s shoulder.

Kit turned. Then he came to a quick and vibrant conclusion: either he was dreaming, or he was about to be expelled.

A tall, gray-­haired man in scholar’s robes now stood silhouetted in the doorway. His severe Roman face was expressionless beneath his precise beard, which retained more black than his hair. His impeccable posture gave the impression that his spinal column had been replaced with a lance.

Kit pushed himself off the desk. “Master Norgate,” he said. Whether shock or fear made his voice crack was anyone’s guess. At twenty-­one, he thought he’d outgrown that, but there were surprises to be had every day.

“Skeres. Watson.” The head of Corpus Christi College nodded at Nick and Tom in turn, then fixed his light brown eyes on Kit.

Kit could count on one hand the times he’d spoken to Master Norgate in person. It wasn’t the master’s nature to mingle with students while they drowned in a sea of Pliny and Virgil. He was elusive, appearing for ceremonial purposes only. The fact that he stood here now could mean many things, none of them good. Opening the window had done nothing to dispel the drifting haze of tobacco.

Norgate’s lips narrowed. “Marlowe, if you would follow me.”

It wasn’t a request. “Yes,” Kit said, unnecessarily. “Of course.”

He looked to Tom in a wordless plea for help and received a sympathetic wince in return. It was touching that Tom Watson cared whether Norgate had Kit murdered and thrown into the river, though admittedly it was more touching than helpful. But everything would end for the best, if Kit could maintain his composure. There was no reason to be afraid. He’d done nothing wrong.

There, if anywhere, was a lie for the ages.

Norgate ushered Kit down the hall toward the outer courtyard, walking fast and in silence. They passed the chapel, long emptied of stragglers from evening services. Two or three servants remained within, sweeping down the slate floor before the next morning’s call to prayer. The setting sun streamed through the leaded windows to carve out jeweled shadows across the floor. It gave the servants the look of figures in a mosaic, Byzantine and impersonal.

“Marlowe, once,” Norgate said, rounding a corner. “Just once, I would appreciate not having a vague sense of malaise where you are concerned. Do you think you can manage that?”

“I don’t know what you mean, sir,” Kit said, lengthening his stride to keep up. It wasn’t easy—Norgate towered eight inches above him. “Unless it’s the chapel wine, in which case—”

Norgate frowned. “What wine?”

Ah. Damn. “I have no idea.”

The master sighed. “Marlowe, I’m trying to help you. I’ve taken a liking to you, against my better judgment.”

Kit stared. Well, that was certainly news. Although then again, perhaps there was something to it. Corpus Christi accepted two poor scholars a year at most, perhaps only one in a lean term. For Kit to walk through these doors—let alone with funding for both an undergraduate degree and the master’s he’d complete in seven months—Norgate must have taken some sort of interest. There was a world of difference, though, between an interest and a liking.

“There’s no reason to look surprised, Marlowe,” Norgate said testily. “Why did you think I let you in at all?” The master had sped up, somehow.

“Some sort of penance, I thought, sir,” Kit said.

Norgate ignored this. “I remember your application. It isn’t often a boy of sixteen submits something that remarkable, and Master Seymour tells me you haven’t disappointed. Your skills in rhetoric and disputation are stunning, if morally flexible.”

No secret what that referred to. Two weeks ago, Master Seymour, dean of poetics, had pitted Kit against a fourth-­year master’s candidate to debate the spiritual imperative of a celibate clergy. Kit, assigned the affirmative position, bested Francis Masterson in two minutes. When Masterson whined that Kit’s obvious position gave him the advantage, Kit flipped sides without missing a beat and spent five minutes explaining why England’s priests ought to fuck widely, loudly, and well. His logic had been impeccable, though Seymour sighed like the north wind when he awarded Kit victory.

“Your writing, too, is exceptional,” Norgate went on. “Leaving you in the care of an illiterate shoemaker would have been a crime.”

Kit clenched his fists to keep from speaking. Leave it to a Cambridge master to conceal an insult in a forest of compliments. Granted, Kit owed Norgate everything, and the master hadn't said anything Kit hadn't heard before, or said himself a hundred times. But calling your own father an ignorant peasant was one thing, hearing the head of the college do it quite another. If this was Norgate's attempt to remind Kit to stick to his place and be grateful, he didn't need to hear it. Why bring up . . . 

Oh. That was why. 

God damn it all. Not again. 

Likely—more than likely—his father's drinking and debts had caught up to him, landing him back in debtor's prison. But what could Kit do about it? Leave Cambridge and plead John Marlowe's case before the court, as he'd done as a schoolboy in Canterbury? Manipulating a magistrate wasn't the glorious purpose he'd envisoned for his new-lauded skills in rhetoric. 

Norgate stopped walking. Though he'd never stated their destination, Kit supposed this must be it. He glanced at the closed door between them and indentified it with a despairing lack of surprise. The master's office. This could not end well. 

“I know prudence is not your best quality, Marlowe,” Norgate said, “but please do not do anything stupid.”

So saying, the master turned and knocked three times on the office door. Kit barely had time to consider the strangeness of it—under what circumstances did a man knock on his own door?—before a voice Kit didn't know answered from the inside.

“Come in.”

The two men looked at each other. While the master was not the companion Kit would have chosen for such a meeting, he dreaded entering that room alone.

Kit stepped into the office. The latch clicked as Norgate closed the door behind him.

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