Christopher Marlowe had never liked Robert Greene when he was alive. But when Greene is found dead shortly after sending Kit a desperate letter, he feels duty bound to find out who killed him. Before long, the playwright-sleuth finds himself in the midst of a baffling murder investigation – where nothing is as it first appears.
The shadow of the Black Death settles over London in this eerie book extract from M.J. Trow’s new Tudor mystery . . .
The Pestilence came to Dowgate that summer. The Spaniards sent it, the rumour ran, in plague ships that drifted with the tide up the river in the dead of night. The Lord sent it because the City’s Livery Companies had displeased him, worshipping Mammon as they did. Above all, it was the Devil, the old serpent, keen as always to add souls to his legions. What if they shivered when he sent for them, if their bodies bulged with black sores and oozed blood? It was all one to him, the great searcher, hobbling on his cloven hoofs down the cobbled smock alleys and prancing through the steelyards, ringing to his tune.
Meg Honeytree had seen him creeping along Elbow Lane; Jane Griggs had caught a blast of his foul breath as he brushed past her on his way to the Vintry. She hadn’t believed a word from the plague doctor in his leather beak, spouting some rubbish about the miasma that rose from the old Walbrook, the stream that lay buried under London’s streets. It was the Fiend, simple as that.
Robert Greene didn’t know. Robert Greene didn’t care. He sat in his house along Kyroun Lane, watching the Baltic ships riding the river’s tide. The huge cranes in the Vintry swung above the Thames mist, groaning as their ropes took the weight of the dark timber, the silver furs. Silent in the shadows, cats prowled, fat on the rats that streamed from the ships in their hundreds. Even at dusk the docks were alive, the sailors’ calls rising above the hum of a never-sleeping city, the lanterns darting like fireflies on the water.
Robert Greene was in his thirty-fifth year, but today he felt as old as Methuselah. Around him, in his garret room, the spiders ruled, weaving whole kingdoms in the casement, pattering over his parchment, leaving trails of God-alone-knew-what all over his Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. He dipped the quill into the ink. There would be no plays tonight, no poetry; not his own, nor anyone else’s. Tonight, he had to write a letter – just one – to a man he hated more than anyone in the world. He shivered suddenly as a draught caught him. He thought he heard a creak on the stair, a muttered word, a whisper just on the cusp of sound. It couldn’t be Mrs Isam; she never came this high into the eaves, not when Dominus Greene was there. And besides, she never spoke below a dull roar, being hard of hearing and of most other senses beyond cooking and laundering. And Dominus Greene had not stirred from his room for three days and three nights. Only one man had come to see him: not Doll, not the snivelling Fortunatus; no one, except that one man.
Greene felt cold and old as he dipped the quill again. How could he start this letter, after all this time? Yet, how could he not, when his life depended on it? He took a breath as deep as his rattling lungs would allow and pulled the linen shroud up over his head. The candle guttered as his hand moved past it and the quill tip scratched the vellum.
‘To Christopher Marlowe,’ he saw the words appear and nearly shrank from them. They seemed almost to glow in the gloom of his chamber. ‘Dominus of Corpus Christi College, poet, playwright, friend to the afflicted.’ It was in Greene’s nature to grovel, to compliment, to laud, even the most undeserving. But would the recipient of this letter appreciate it, that was the question? Marlowe, who could see deep into men’s souls with those dark eyes of his. Greene paused, a glutinous drop of ink frozen on the tip of the feather. He toyed with screwing up the letter and starting again. But time was of the essence and the sand in his glass had long ago run out. He dipped the quill again and forced his aching fingers to move to the next line – ‘Kit,’ he wrote.
BLACK DEATH is available from 29 March in the UK and from 1 July in the US. Read more here.