HAWKSMOOR by Peter Ackroyd


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British poet/critic Ackroyd, author of two recent historical novels and a well-received biography of T.S. Eliot (T.S. Eliot: A Life, 1984) has written a novel which mirrors the lives of two Londoners 250 years separated in time; it's stylistically impeccable, but unbeguiling and oddly empty. In 1711, Nicholas Dyer is commissioned by an Act of Parliament to build seven new Parish Churches. He's a master architect and designer and works quickly with his assistant, Walter, to get the job done. But he's not a rational man of the Age of Enlightenment--he believes in the dark secrets of the Druids and the forest peoples of England. Fascinated by the violence in the slums of London, he himself begins to kill--a colleague, a small boy--before finally going mad. In 1985, London C.I.D. detective Nicholas Hawksmoor (who also has an assistant named Walter) begins to investigate a series of murders, all of them taking place in or near churches built by Dyor. He receives a book full of 18th-century drawings and a warning note mysteriously signed by someone calling himself The Universal Architect. He's certain the Architect is a strange tramp seen about London, but his attempts to find the man cause only public panic and more death; in the end, unable to solve the case, he too goes mad. Is this a ghost story? A tale of reincarnation? A parallel universe yarn? It's difficult, if not impossible, to tell, mainly because the novel is dense with literary pyrotechnics--both Nicholases dream the same dreams, share oddly similar experiences, and drift into the same obscure madness. All in all: there's a good deal of literary pretentiousness here, but too little in the way of forthright storytelling, so a well-researched attempt at a tour de force in the style of John Fowles or William Golding simply doesn't come off.

Pub Date: Jan. 22nd, 1985
Publisher: Harper & Row