Book Review: A Prisoner in Malta

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A Prisoner in Malta
by Phillip DePoy
Historical Mystery
310 pages
Published in January 2016 by Minotaur Books

Christopher Marlowe, a poet, playwright, and possible agent provocateur was one of the brightest stars of Elizabethan England until he was killed in a fight in 1593. He was just twenty-nine. Though Marlowe is remembered for his plays, rumors have abounded since even before his death that he was involved with Elizabeth I’s government. The Queen’s Privy Council intervened on his behalf on at least one occasion for services rendered on behalf of Queen and country, but just what those services were remains a mystery. In A Prisoner of Malta, Edgar Award-winning author Phillip DePoy speculates about what those services might have been in his newest historical mystery series featuring Marlowe and various real figures from Elizabeth I’s court as they work to keep England safe from threats from both within and without.

In 1583, Christopher Marlowe is a student at Cambridge when he is summoned by Sir Francis Walsingham, Her Majesty’s Spymaster. Marlowe is ordered to rescue a prisoner from a heavily guarded prison on the Mediterranean island of Malta. Marlowe and his companion, the Queen’s physician Doctor Lopez, are barely on their way when word comes that Marlowe is the chief suspect in the murder of a hated classmate. As Marlowe uncovers more clues about the prisoner’s identity, he finds that there is far more to Walsingham’s assignment than he dreamed. If he fails to save the prisoner, solve the murder, and find his way to the truth through layers of deceit and betrayal, Marlowe will face worse than the hangman’s noose. The very fate of the Queen and England itself could rest upon his shoulders.

Though many authors have made detectives of real historical figures (including Elizabeth I herself, somehow) few of them are as plausible in such a role as Christopher Marlowe. DePoy makes use of Marlowe’s known characteristics- his wit, intelligence, and bravado- to bring his fictional spy and investigator to life with snappy dialogue and a thorough knowledge of the time period, its class distinctions, religious conflicts, and cultural quirks.

“‘No,’ she said sweetly. “I cannot be your religion.’

‘A clever deflection,’ he said, sitting back. ‘You are as quick with words as you are with a rapier- and twice as deadly.’

‘Are you quite finished?’ She shook her head. ‘You have a murder to solve, England to save, and no time to waste.'”

The dialogue often sounds like it could have been pulled from an Elizabethan-era play, and indeed, thoughts of the theater suffuse the story. Marlowe uses his own acting skills to confuse, charm, or run roughshod over his opponents, and he’s not above spouting poetry to try to win over the women he admires. Given that the woman Marlowe falls for in this particular story is his intellectual equal, the poetry is appreciated, but comically ineffective at winning her heart. Fortunately, Marlowe is better at solving mysteries than wooing women, once again using his play-writing skills to develop a theatrical plot that helps him imagine the roots of the real plot against the throne.

And because all the world is a stage, DePoy gives us a grander scale than London and its surrounds. We are treated to dramatic sea chases, a daring prison escape, fast-paced swordfights, and characters who aren’t what they seem at first or second glance. A Prisoner in Malta doesn’t provide a deep look into the world of Elizabeth I’s England, and that is one of its strengths. DePoy doesn’t belabor his points or spend page after page dumping irrelevant information on the reader. He sticks to the parts that matter to the story and assumes the reader is smart enough to keep up. And if the appearance of a band of hashish-consuming assassins seems unlikely, well, the plots of a lot of modern thrillers aren’t too likely either but are no less fun for their improbability.

As the first entry in what will hopefully become an ongoing series (there are currently two books), A Prisoner in Malta does exactly what it set out to do: tell an exciting story of swords and spies in a glittering setting, starring a dashing and witty lead who just so happens to have been a real-life international man of mystery.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: A Prisoner in Malta

  1. I had never even heard of Malta until I had a professor when I was in grad school who was from Malta. I learned that it has two national languages, Italian and Arabic, and that it was colonized until fairly recently. Most people now seem to know my former professor’s son: Pete Buttigieg.

  2. Pingback: Sunday Sum-Up, 04/07/2019 | Traveling in Books

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