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In the eighteenth century, Nicholas Dyer, an apprentice of Sir Christopher Wren, is responsible for the building of six churches across London. But Mr Dyer is not all he seems. He practices the Dark Arts and wants to introduce his religion into the bodies of the churches that he is building. This means he is forced to lead a double life and when someone gets in his way, he gets rid of them as only he can.
Two hundred and fifty years later, a detective called Hawksmoor is brought in to solve a selection of murders, all with the same modus operandi, committed in the grounds of different churches across London. Each time, there is no forensic evidence remaining to be able to link the murder to anyone. The dead are also very different, including children and the down and out. Is there a connection between the murders and Nicholas Dyer's churches and religion? Can Hawksmoor find out the truth before more people die?
I'm always a bit wary of Peter Ackroyd's work. I deeply believe that literature should be accessible to anyone who wants to read it, but Ackroyd's work does not always lend itself to this. He fills his work with literary references that you need a degree in the English language to understand. However, he does write a good yarn about London in other times and creates an excellent atmosphere. This particular book is also part thriller/detective story, so I was more than willing to give it a go.
The two main characters, Nicholas Dyer and Hawksmoor, are suitably vague. We are given a potted history of Dyer's life, in his own words, but this is not enough to understand why he not only believes in the Devil, but is so prepared to kill to get his own way. Hawksmoor is much more of a shadowy character, but what does come over is his strong determination to solve the crimes he is working on. There is a clear link between the two characters, although it is not immediately apparent what this is.
Written in 1985, I really did think that this book was cleverly done. The book is split into two parts. The first switches between Nicholas Dyer's story in the eighteenth century, which is written in the language of the day, and the stories of those murdered in modern day London. Hawksmoor's involvement does not begin until the second part, when he becomes involved in the investigations. The second part also continues Dyer's story. The style of writing switches between monologue, prose and at one point, a short play. What I really liked is the way that the chapters were linked. One of the sections of prose about the murderees, for example, ends: 'And when he looked up, he saw the face above him'. Then the next chapter, a monologue from Dyer, begins: 'The face above me then became a voice...'. Although the chapters were told from very different points of view, I felt that this really helped make the handover smooth.
There is a certain amount of pretentiousness in the vocabulary that Ackroyd uses though, particularly in the sections about Dyer. Written in the language of the time, it is not particularly easy to read, and there were times when I switched off and found myself not taking it in. It is definitely very cleverly done, but it does smack a little of showing off and I just didn't feel that there was a need for this.
The best way that I can describe the atmosphere of the book is a cross between Charles Dickens and Dante's Inferno. Dyer's beliefs are really quite strange and murderous and made me feel quite ill at times.
Plot-wise, the links between Nicholas Dyer's work and the murders in modern day London are very apparent and I really did find the whole story intriguing. I particularly liked the fact that the basic premise of the story - the churches built in London is based on fact. There were six churches designed by an apprentice of Sir Christopher Wren's - the only difference is that the apprentice was not called Dyer. I'm not sure why the name Dyer was used - probably to deliberately confuse the reader and add to the general intrigue.
What let this book down for me was the ending. I was desperate to find out how the story was going to end, although I really had no idea what direction the book was going in. However, knowing it was at least part detective fiction, I thought there would be some kind of a conclusion. There isn't though really. It just kind of finishes and left me feeling really frustrated. I do enjoy some books that don't have a real conclusion; in this case though, I really wanted one.
Despite the ending and the occasional bout of Ackroyd seeming to think he is superior to everyone else, I did enjoy this book. I found it much easier to read than I expected, apart from the Ye Old Englishe bits. I think the idea behind the book is highly original and deeply intriguing and its links to history were fascinating. It isn't a light read though, so if you're looking for something fun and entertaining and like to have a proper ending to your books, then you are probably not going to like this one too much. From my point of view though - recommended, just don't get too excited about the ending.
The book is available from play.com for £3.99. Published by Penguin Books, it has 224 pages. ISBN: 9780140171136.
This fictional nightmare combines the genres of thriller, ghost story and metaphysical tract. Ackroyd uses 17th-century language and spelling to evoke the spirit of London after the Great Fire.