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THE WORDS “SHAMUS,” “gumshoe,” and “P.I.” didn’t exist in Elizabethan England, but it did have “watchmen,” men on the streets of London to counter suspicious activity from nightfall to sunrise.
And there was plenty of suspicious activity, everything from anglers (whose barbed sticks plucked things out of open windows), buffenappers (who stole dogs for profit), to highwaymen and their providers (those on whom highwaymen preyed). And also government-sanctioned rascals like William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, chief advisor to Queen Elizabeth I in her pursuit of English Catholics thought to be in cahoots with enemy Spain.
My Favorite Elizabethan Noir Playwright. Christopher Marlowe was the Elizabethan precursor of both Raymond Chandler and the latter’s shamus, Philip Marlowe.
Kit Marlowe’s The Tragicall Hiftoy of the Life and Death of Doctor Fauftus certainly has its noir aspects: There’s a wonderful tale that, in one Elizabethan production, an even dozen actor-devils were to drag Faustus to hell, but thirteen devils were on stage.
In real life, maybe Kit was counterfeiting coins for the benefit of seditious Catholics. Or maybe he was a government double agent. At one point, Kit was arrested, sent before Lord Treasurer Burghley (yes, that Burghley), and released without charge.
Was he a mole among Catholics for Burghley and the late Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster? We’ll never know for sure, because on May 30, 1593, Kit was killed in a Deptford altercation with Ingram Frizer (another Walsingham operative).
Or was he? One theory: Kit’s death was faked to save him from trial and execution for subversive atheism. And that he lived on to ghost-write plays for a hack actor from Stratford-on-Avon.
Talk about noir.
The LRB on Elizabethan Noir. In London Review of Books, November 4, 2021, Charles Nicholl writes on Elizabethan true crime in “Fetch the Chopping Knife.”
Nicholl’s title comes from Beech’s Tragedy, 1600, which Nicholl describes as “a real cracker. (Emma Whipday’s stripped down ‘historical staging’ of it can be seen on YouTube.)”
Real Murders With Legs. “Its subject,” Nicholl says, “is a double murder, committed by an alehouse-keeper, Thomas Merry, on 23 August 1594. The victims were Robert Beech, a chandler, and his servant Thomas Winchester. Merry was hanged at Smithfield on 6 September, along with his sister Rachel, convicted as an accessory. The authors’ source was a news pamphlet, A true discourse of a most cruell and barbarous murther comitted by one Thomas Merrey, entered on the Stationers’ Register less than a week after the murder was committed. Five ballads on the subject are also listed in the register.”
Dialogue on the Dastardly Deed. “Rachel: Oh can you finde in hart to cut and carve/His stone-colde flesh … ?
Merry: Aye, marry, can I – fetch the chopping knife.”
A Backstory: Nicholl writes, “This grisly Elizabethan melodrama is definitely not the best play written in 1599 – it has Hamlet among its competitors—but it is arguably a minor classic of the true crime genre.”
“A further twist,” Nicholl notes, “is that a few months before it was performed, one of its authors had himself been on a murder rap. On 6 June 1599, John Day fought with a fellow writer, Henry Porter, and wounded him in the ‘left breast’ with his rapier; Porter died the following day. Day was arrested and charged – with ‘malice aforethought’ he had ‘feloniously killed and murdered the said Henry Porter’—but was acquitted by the jury at Southwark Assizes on a plea of self-defence.”
Nicholl’s Conclusion: “It’s the unspoken backstory of Beech’s Tragedy, direct from the mean streets of the Bankside. It adds a further shade of noir to this relic from the Rose’s true crime repertoire.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021