Sunday, January 17, 2021

Playing With Mystery

The School of Night

The School of Night 

“What is a holy mass, Tom, if not a play? A wedding? A coronation? do you wish to know why I am a playmaker? Because I know that, at every moment, we are in the midst of some play. Only in an arena that calls itself theater may we stand outside the real theater - our lives - and we see them in all their truth, Tom. By which, if course, I mean their tragedy.”  ― Louis Bayard, The School of Night

I enjoy historical novels especially when they involve mystery and intrigue. An Instance of the Fingerpost by Ian Pears comes to mind as a particular favorite. Bayard's novel is similar while adding a contemporary mystery with its counterpart set at the end of the Elizabethan era.

Henry Cavendish is a disgraced Elizabethan scholar, fooled by a forgery of a poem supposedly written by Walter Raleigh. As a result, Henry has chosen to turn to tutoring and odd jobs in Washington, D.C. As the story begins he has reconnected with Alonzo Wax, a college friend and a book collector. The eccentric Wax, perhaps the most interesting character in the novel, has purloined part of a letter that sheds light on the fabled "School of Night", a secret congregation of illustrious Elizabethan-era intellects like Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe and a brilliant but little-known scientist named Thomas Harriot. The school delved into theology, philosophy and science perhaps bordering on alchemy, in a manner thought traitorous and blasphemous. Wax apparently commits suicide, but he also reveals his discovery to Cavendish, and to Clarissa Dale, a woman Wax met at a lecture who claims psychic visions of Harriot, and to another antique book collector.

At Wax's memorial service, Henry is approached by the supposed owner of the letter, an English antiquities collector named Bernard Styles, and offered a handsome sum to find and return the letter. No sooner than he starts to inquire about this Wax's devoted assistant is murdered and Wax's collection is stolen. Henry and Clarissa uncover clues that lead them to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, near where Harriot studied Native Americans during the failed attempt to establish an English colony. There they find Wax in hiding, claiming the letter points to a treasure. Clues then lead the trio to Syon House in England, the ancestral seat of the Earl of Northumberland, where Harriot once lived.

Through all of the contemporary adventures there are flashbacks provided in interpolated chapters set in the historical Elizabethan era featuring Thomas Harriot and his love, Margaret Crookshanks. The combination of the ancient mystery, lost treasure, and suspenseful intrigue, make this an historical novel that I can recommend to all.


Brian Joseph said...

The plot of this one sounds so good.

I love the bookish connections and The School of Night sounds both intriguing and a very fun plot device.

The plot elements also sound wide ranging.

mudpuddle said...

i really liked "Fingerpost" and this sounds comparable, if a bit complicated... i'll order a copy anyway, tx...

James said...

@Brian - Thanks for your comment. The combination of history and mystery seems to work well.

@mudpuddle - The combination of two different time periods adds to the layers of mystery.

CyberKitten said...

Sounds excellent. I'm a fan of historical novels/mysteries as you no doubt know from my Blog postings. I have a few in my Review Pile I think you'll like plus I have a few similar to this review scattered around somewhere. I'll see if I can dig them out of their hiding places sooner rather than later.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. I enjoy historical novels when I have time to fit them into my reading plans.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi James, When it comes to historical novels I find the Tudor/Elizabethian period very interesting and The School of Night sounds like the author really has done his homework on that period. I also like historical novels where the present day characters learn from exploring the past. I am going to check out this author.

James said...

This is a very good historical novel, not at the level of Hillary Mantel, but well done with a compelling mystery angle.