After a career in TV production Helen Bettinson recently ditched a long commute around the M25 in order to concentrate on reading, and perhaps even writing, crime fiction.
Louis Bayard is the latest in a long line of writers and scholars to be captured by the idea of Sir Walter Ralegh’s School of Night: an intellectual cabal said to have included playwright Christopher Marlowe, astronomer Thomas Harriot and the notorious 9th Duke of Northumberland, Henry Percy. Whether or not this secret Elizabethan talking-shop really existed is beside the point – in Bayard’s hands it makes for a convenient fictional jumping-off point.
The novel comprises two interwoven narratives, that of the brilliant Thomas Harriot, furtively undertaking his experiments at Syon House in 1603, and that of Henry Cavendish, a present-day discredited Ralegh scholar scratching a living in Washington DC.
Thanks to a chance meeting at the funeral of his best friend, Cavendish reluctantly embarks on a literary treasure hunt that promises riches and restored reputation. As the bodies of acquaintances pile up, Cavendish, his newly-acquired love interest, Clarissa, and shadowy stalker, Halldor, cross the Atlantic in search of Harriot’s hoard. Meanwhile, four hundred years earlier Harriot, too, is engaged in perilous research. With the arrival of the James I the late Queen’s old favourites, including Ralegh, Percy, and by association Harriot himself, face incarceration in the Tower, or worse.
There is no doubt that Bayard can spin a gripping yarn and the suspense of both strands builds towards a satisfying climax. He is also clever at bringing to life the pestilent streets of historic London and the alchemical mysteries of Harriot’s Thameside cottage. The Elizabethan scientist is a complex character we want to know more of, unlike his modern counterpoint, the irritating Henry Cavendish. Similarly, the historical voices and conversations ring truer than the modern – Bayard’s contemporary British characters spout the most clichéd language. I expect this book will do well nonetheless – Bayard is a bestseller in the States. But if you want a more nuanced, and intelligent introduction to the Tudor world, you’d better stick with CJ Sansom.