Set in squalid 17th-century London, this intellectually rigorous and emotionally cool mystery finds Sir Isaac Newton pursuing counterfeiters and uncovering a far-reaching plot that threatens Great Britain.
A writer whose works move across time and take many forms, Kerr (The Shot, 2000, etc.) here sets a case against the background of England’s war with France in the late 1600s. With the outcome of the conflict uncertain, England can ill afford a collapsed economy, a distinct possibility if counterfeiters abroad in the land remain unchecked. To deal with the problem, Parliament and the King of England appoint Newton to ferret out “coiners” from the Royal Mint, located in the Tower of London. Joining Newton is Christopher Ellis, whose recollections of the case, coming over 30 years later, form the narrative. (Like Newton and others here, Ellis is based on a real-life figure.) Before long, Ellis’s predecessor at the Mint is found murdered, and three more killings follow, all in gruesome circumstances and with ciphers left at the scene. “ ‘I am a man that sees much and understands more,’ ” proclaims Newton as the investigation gets underway. Indeed, his keen observations and deductions become the core of his dialogues with Ellis, their subjects spiraling from the case to include science, religion, and human nature. In the latter regard, Ellis benefits as well from a brief affair with Newton’s niece in a welcome subplot that warms what is largely a cerebral pursuit: the characters here, excepting Ellis but including Newton, seldom become more than givens in an intricate syllogism. The subtitle, The Private Life of Sir Isaac Newton, is indeed curious, as Newton spends most of his time alone pondering the ciphers. From these clues, he perceives that the murders are all linked to a covert plan that may topple the nation just as it finally triumphs in war.
Rich as history and philosophy, largely weak as drama.