Monday, June 03, 2024

the second-last book I read

Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd.

Nicholas Dyer is an architect, currently engaged in the building of several churches in central London. He is highly regarded, including by Sir Christoper Wren to whom he started his career as a sort of apprentice before getting commissions for work in his own right, and who still acts as a sort of mentor to him.

Dyer and Wren have a relationship clearly built on mutual affection and professional respect, but one with some friction caused by their different characters and worldviews - Wren is the arch-rationalist, as interested in the internal workings of the human body as he is in the physical laws that prevent church towers from falling down. Dyer, on the other hand, appears to be an adherent of some odd esoteric occult philosophy that he was initiated into by his childhood mentor, Mirabilis.

No harm in a bit of the old occult mumbo-jumbo, though, right? Or at least no more harm than in the standard default Christian mumbo-jumbo, anyway. Weeeeell, there is this thing that Dyer seems to require as part of the foundation-laying ceremony of each of his buildings - not throwing in the usual stuff like a few coins, but the freshly-murdered corpse of a human being - murders carried out, moreover, by Dyer's own hand. 

Now we do a wibbly-wobbly dissolve to the present day and Nicholas Hawksmoor, a maverick London cop, who doesn't play by the book, but, dammit, he gets results. Well, actually results have been in short supply of late, particularly in the current case which involves a series of murders whose victims keep turning up, mysteriously strangled, in the vicinity of a series of early-eighteenth-century churches. But why? And how?

You're not an idiot, so you don't need me to spell out that there are Rum Goings-On afoot here with the past echoing in the present, and indeed the present apparently echoing in the past as well. It's probably impossible to get a clear feel for what's going on without knowing at least some of the historical background that underlies the story being told here: Nicholas Hawksmoor was indeed an architect and acolyte of Sir Christopher Wren, and did indeed design and oversee the building of several churches in central London, most of which are mentioned here, although the church of Little St. Hugh where the past and present stories come together and time apparently collapses in on itself at the end of the book in some mysterious way is fictional.

So there are obviously quite a few questions to be asked here: what is the nature of the linkage between Dyer's murders and the present-day ones? What's going on with the half-formed and half-expressed idea that the churches form some sort of pentagram or other occult figure when drawn on a map? What is the significance of the authorial decision to have the modern-day detective carry the actual name of the historical figure, rather than the character who resembles him in just about every other way? And what of the shadowy figure also called Hawksmoor who haunts the periphery of the eighteenth-century part of the story and seems to harbour some ill-will towards Dyer?

I mean, I have some thoughts, but I should make it clear at this point that I have definitive answers to none of these questions; whether you enjoy the book or not probably depends on whether that matters to you more than just luxuriating in the chewiness of the prose. The eighteenth-century stuff with its Capitalisation of Nouns is a particular delight.

The general themes of history repeating itself and the past and present influencing each other in mysterious and slightly spooky ways is also a theme in Chatterton, the only other Ackroyd I've read. Hawksmoor is probably slightly denser and gnarlier, and Chatterton is probably a more purely enjoyable read, but both are excellent and twisty and thought-provoking.

Hawksmoor, Ackroyd's third novel (Chatterton was his fourth), won two of the major British fiction prizes on its publication in 1985 - the Guardian Fiction Prize (other featurees here are 1972, 1984 and 1987) and the Whitbread Novel Award (a recent-ish list is here).

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