by Peter Ackroyd
Peter Ackroyd gravitated to the dark side of
British history from the moment of his debut
as a writer.  At age nine he authored a drama
about Guy Fawkes, of Gun-
powder Plot fame, and his
first novel,
The Great Fire of
, dealt with the 1666
conflagration that destroyed
the residences of 70,000 of
the city’s 80,000 inhabitants.
Ackroyd’s biography of
Thomas More won the
James Tait Black Memorial
Prize in 1989, and furthered his reputation as
the modern British writer most skilled at
channeling the crimes and misdemeanors of
previous centuries.  In a wide-ranging career,
Ackroyd has also made TV documentaries,
served as managing editor of
The Spectator,
authored a series of books for youngsters,
written poetry, and authored criticism.  But
he remains best known for his inquiries into
the seamier side London, whether in stories,
non-fiction or on screen—a body of work
marked by his fascination with those aspects
not located in
London A-Z. "London goes
beyond any boundary or convention," he has
written. "It contains every wish or word ever
spoken, every action or gesture ever made,
every harsh or noble statement ever
expressed. It is illimitable. It is Infinite
Essay by Ted Gioia

During my student days, I could look out the
window of my room and see, across the street,
Clarendon Building, designed by architect
Nicholas Hawksmoor between 1711 and 1713,
and originally the home of Oxford University Press.   
I observed no signs that Hawksmoor had hidden
satanic or pagan symbolism in the edifice—contrary
to what you might expect after
reading this novel. Yet the
location may well have been
cursed: from that same window
I saw Michael Cimino film an
elaborate scene for his movie
Heaven’s Gate (1980) —indeed,
directly in front of the
Clarendon Building—a movie
that turned out to be one of the
biggest flops in cinema history
and led to the collapse of the
venerable United Artists studio. Maybe one of
Hawksmoor's demons was at work, after all.  

Five years later, Peter Ackroyd published his novel
Hawksmoor, which explored the supposed dark side
of the architect’s work. Ackroyd drew on a fanciful
hypothesis of recent origin, one that links the churches
built by this disciple of Christopher Wren to some
distinctly un-Christian concepts. Hawksmoor designed
six London churches in the early 18th century, and
picked locations with historic linkages to plague,
murder, fire and other unsavory events. If plotted on a
map, the sites can be linked to form the image of the
of Horus—an Egyptian symbol congruent with
Hawksmoor's obvious interest in pyramids, obelisks
and other pagan structural concepts. Even the name
Hawksmoor is seen as a clue by conspiracy theorists
—combining as it does the hawk, or bird of Horus,
with Moor, a native of North Africa.   

From this sketchy evidence, Ackroyd constructed his
own elaborate, symbol-laden structure, a postmodern
mystery that juxtaposes a contemporary crime story
with a historical novel about a sacrilegious builder
of Christian houses of worship. Yet he turns the
identities of his two leading protagonists upside down.   
The English Baroque architect is rechristened
Nicholas Dyer, while the modern era detective is
named Hawksmoor. Even more intriguing, Ackroyd
includes numerous overlapping biographical details in
his presentation of the two figures, toying with another
concept associated with ancient Egypt (and later
Friedrich Nietzsche):  namely, the myth of eternal

In Ackroyd's account, the architect belongs to a
secret society that embraces dark arts and hermetic
beliefs.  When Dyer is assigned responsibility for
designing and supervising the construction of
various churches in London, he decides to turn them
into secret shrines to his malevolent thaumaturgy.  
To compound his intentional blasphemy, he is
determined to provide a corpse for each structure, a
victim to water with blood his unholy temples.  

The detective Hawksmoor doesn't appear until
midway through the novel. When he arrives, the
book jumps forward some two-and-a-half centuries,
but the setting remains the same London neighborhoods
where Dyer built his churches. The reader follows
along as Hawksmoor tries to find the serial killer
behind a string of murders, each following a similar
modus operandi and every one occurring in the
vicinity of a church.   Despite the most intense scrutiny
of the crime scene and painstaking autopsies of the
victims, as well as relentless questioning of possible
witnesses, no solid clues can be found.  No weapon,
no blood or DNA sample, no fibers from clothing,
no fingerprints, or any other scrap of evidence, comes
to light.  No promising leads emerge. The murders
continue, but the investigation hits a dead end.

This uncanny parallelism between the 17th century
murderer and the 20th century investigator will continue
to reverberate for the remainder of the novel. But
something is missing. The constant borrowing of
devices familiar from mystery novels creates an
expectation among readers that a rational, coherent
explanation will be forthcoming. But Ackroyd defies
these expectations, and instead turns to the techniques
of magical realism just at those moments when other
authors would follow the standard formula of the
whodunit.  Bodies accumulate, but we otherwise operate
in a total vacuum—at least from the standpoint of
rationality and causality—without salient clues, leads,
suspects, plausible hypotheses, or any of the other
milestones and mementos associated with this sort of

A host of standard postmodern devices amplify the
cryptic nature of
Hawksmoor.  Ackroyd clearly enjoys
playing the fashionable literary game of mixing up
genres. Part of the story is conveyed in the form of a
play; a larger chunk is presented via an old-fashioned
diary, full of misspellings, random capitalizations and
quirky punctuation; occasionally bit-part characters step
in to sing songs; other sections are written in the
standard style of modern crime novels. But there is
more of
Paul Auster and Umberto Eco here than
Agatha Christie and P.D. James.  We get a double dose
of those counter-culture memes that we have seen again
and again in the works of other writers who manipulate
the mystery genre for their own experimental purposes:
the figure of failed detective, the mystery with the
metaphysical solution, the obsession with texts and
their hidden meanings, the confusion of perpetrator
and investigator, etc.

Some of the best sections of
Hawksmoor have little
bearing on the crime story that occupies the central
position in the novel. An early interlude on the plague
and the Great Fire of London is so unsettling and vivid,
that all the eerie and supernatural details that follow in
later chapters can hardly match the intense historical
realism of this opening gambit. Midway through the
novel, a lengthy argument between Christopher Wren
and Nicholas Dyer on the merits of science versus
superstition does little to advance the plot—indeed, it
is a quasi-Socratic dialogue that one could read in
isolation from the rest of the book—but it too stands
out as a highlight of the novel.

Alas, the murder story itself ultimately disappoints.  
Ackroyd opts to create a mood and an atmosphere,
and he succeeds in doing both. But in his mimicry
of the mystery genre, he has created certain expectations
that cannot be adequately resolved with just a sensitivity
to ambiance and a piling up of coincidences. The
churches provide a spooky setting, true enough.
The parallelism between his two contrasting stories
is uncanny.   But a story that introduces so many dead
bodies needs more than atmospherics to leave us
satisfied at the tale’s end.  Even the most daring revelers
at Halloween know that creepiness alone has no
appeal unless it’s capped by a trick or treat, and
Ackroyd stops just short of delivering on either of
those counts.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular
culture. His  latest book is
Love Songs: The Hidden
, published by Oxford University Press.

Publication date of this essay: August 23, 2011
New Angles on an Old Genre
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Further Clues:

"A Walk on the Wild Side"

An Interview with Peter Ackroyd

Hawksmoor Churches
Postmodern Mystery
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