Bayard's novel isn't the first to combine historical characters and long-secret shenanigans, but instead of suggesting Jesus married Mary Magdalene, it puts Shakespeare into a gay love affair.
Henry Cavendish is a disgraced Elizabethan scholar, fooled by a forgery of a poem supposedly written by Walter Raleigh. Henry has retreated to a life of tutoring and odd jobs in Washington, D.C., and reconnected with Alonzo Wax, a college friend and a book collector. The eccentric Wax, the most interesting character, 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 the brilliant but little-known scientist Thomas Harriot. The school delved into theology, philosophy and science, in a manner thought traitorous and blasphemous. Wax apparently commits suicide, but he also reveals his discovery to Cavendish, 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 letter's purported owner, an English antiquities collector named Bernard Styles, and offered a handsome sum to find and return the letter. But then Wax's devoted assistant is murdered and Wax's collection is stolen. Clues lead Henry and Clarissa 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. Bayard offers multiple twists and turns, murders and kidnappings—and codes. Especially appealing are the deftly rendered flashback chapters in which Thomas Harriot and his love, Margaret Crookenshanks, appear.
Bayard (The Black Tower, 2008, etc.) blends luminaries of history, lost treasure, intrigue and a double-twist conclusion into a highly readable concoction.