Reviews tagging Murder

A Tip for the Hangman, by Allison Epstein

2 reviews

sugarloaf's review against another edition

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adventurous dark medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? No
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? No
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? It's complicated


This was a difficult book to rate; I think I like the glimpses of potential that the narrative offered more than the execution of the story. The premise is interesting: a poor scholar student at Cambridge, selected for his flexible moral compass and sharp wit, to be a spy for Queen Elizabeth I, decoding ciphers and being posted to watch those who seek to put a catholic on the throne. 

The book is at its best when showing Kit living a double life: maintaining his studies at the same time as he tries to crack near-impossible ciphers, and watching the way his life as a playwright becomes entangled in politics and the web he has to weave to keep himself afloat in all of it. The story begins to stumble on the political aspects of the book, focused around Kit's missions. They are written in spare detail and not much seems to happen on any of them. Each of these does not seem to so much escalate or culminate as they do fizzle, or reach a dead end while a new path begins beside it. The author has chosen to anchor the stakes to Kit's personal life rather than the politics, but the personal stakes change with every political turn of events, making the novel feel disjointed. Each event seems to end abruptly and the book lacks a singular, strong thread which we can follow from beginning to end, instead introducing random elements to drop them and bring them back much later. 

There are attempts at themes; Kit struggles with what he is doing and is haunted by the deaths his actions cause. However, Kit feels like the same man as he was at the beginning of the novel, save for interludes with descriptions of how it all affects him. He remains hot-headed to the point of idiocy throughout the entirety of the story, and despite promising glimpses of a man who was good at his job, we see him fail more often than he succeeds despite being frequently told how good he is as a spy. Kit is not bothered by his lack of competency or tendency to fly off the handle, which could have been narrative threads to pluck in order to nurture some character growth, but he seems unaware of what a liability it makes him and how much it puts him in danger. This aside, he is a likeable character, smart and witty. 

Unfortunately, Kit is the only fleshed out character in the novel. Everyone else, particularly the villains, fall flat, with thin to non-existent motivations, seeming to hate Kit because the story calls for them to. The final act suffers in particular because of this. Side characters, too, are underutilised: Kit's lover, Tom, has little in the way of personality and their romance seemed more of a distraction from the story or a plot device rather than a narrative heart. Another recurring character - one of the only women in the story - feels as if she has had several chapters cut short, leaving a frustratingly incomplete picture of a person which hints at more, but is simply absent the majority of the time. Queen Mary was perhaps the most complex and most interesting character, and was brilliantly written: sharp, pragmatic, ambitious, and carrying spades of conviction, wrapped up in a melange of spite and hatred for her cousin. 

The author leaves a note at the end explaining the differences between real events and her own story, and it feels as if the author was perhaps split in two between historical accuracy and the lure of a glittering but more fictionalised novel. I cannot help but feel the book would have been better trying to do one or the other. Instead, it seems to spread itself thin trying to fit in every event we know happened to Kit in his life as a spy, and then adding even more to the mix with fictional events. 

Fortunately, a good half of the book is spent on its strengths: on the story of Kit becoming a spy and trying to manage his double life. For this reason, and because Kit's intelligence (when not overcome by rage) and manner of speaking and ingratiating himself is truly masterful, and in those moments I had no doubt he was an excellent spy. However, these elements are overpowered by the book's flaws in the final act, and I felt the suspense and emotion did not adequately build towards the book's end because of it. This tempered my enjoyment of what had come before, relegating this to a novel with excellent promise and some thoroughly likeable sections which ultimately failed to execute them to their best potential. 

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biblio_jordyn's review

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adventurous dark funny mysterious tense medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? It's complicated
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes


“It brought a sense of petty satisfaction, watching someone who doubted you adjust their expectations.”

Scholarship student and future playwright, Christopher Marlowe, gets pulled aside by Queen Elizabeth I’s Spymaster for an a spy. Dangling gold and thrills to the student who came from nothing? How could he say no?

I, usually, don’t read historical fiction, but this one caught my eye because of the description. 

Historical fiction? Thriller? LGBTQIA Representation? All wrapped into one? I was sold. 

What could have been better?
There were some sections that I thought dragged, which could have been replaced with scenes with action and espionage, but that could be me being impatient and just wanting a full on drama. 

What I liked?
For the most part, the storyline was interesting and believable. The  espionage portions of this book were ADDICTING. The writing immersed me in England with familiar playwrights like William Shakespeare in some sections. ALSO! Portions of this book were based in truth (not all, which is all explained at the end in the authors note). Honestly, reading this felt like watching a spy movie/tv show. I was left with a new found love I didn’t know I would have! 

This is a book I WOULD LOVE to see turn into a Netflix original series, can we make that happen?

This author has definitely sold me on historical thrillers!

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