Hawksmoor
by Peter Ackroyd
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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
London
, 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
London."
ROGUES GALLERY:
PETER ACKROYD
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

During my student days, I could look out the
window of my room and see, across the street, the
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
eye 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 recurrence.  

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
story.

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's latest book is
The Birth (and Death) of the
Cool.
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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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