Peter Ackroyd’s “Hawksmoor” was first published in 1985. I bought a recent reissue that forms part of Penguin’s decades collection whilst on a spree in Waterstone’s. It appealed to me as I recently realised that despite growing up in the eighties and nineties, I had read very novels that were either written or set in the eighties. Happily “Hawksmoor” is both of these, sort of. It also appealed to me because it is (again, sort of) a detective story and I’ve found myself getting into those lately. John Squire’s excellent artwork for the cover and the nice binding also helped to seal the deal: you don’t get that with an iPad or a Kindle.
For once I am certain that I will not give away too many spoilers because I am really not sure what to make of the ending to this book. Not in the slightest. If you’ve read it, feel free to leave a comment and explain what happened (Note: if people have done this and you haven’t read the book yet, avoid the comments!). I am sure I will read it again and try to work it all out as this is too good a book to not revisit.
The novel split into two time streams that take up alternating chapters. In the first it is the start of the eighteenth century and Nicholas Dyer, apprentice to Sir Christopher Wren, has been commissioned to design seven churches for the city of London. His designs are motivated by a dark past endured during the plague and the Great Fire and he aims to consecrate each church with the murder of an innocent. The second strand takes place in the modern day and a series of murders are taking place in the grounds of Dyer’s churches. The lead detective is Nick Hawksmoor and he is having trouble finding who has murdered these people.
The olde-worlde section is written, as we are taught in our English Literature GCSEs, in a particular first person register that imitates the texts of the time such as Samuel Pepys diary. It’s a tour de force and exceptionally well constructed. It took me a while to get into the feel and rhythm of these sections but once I got used to it, it was so enjoyable to read. The narration is so chatty and full of itself that it does the remarkable job of making you like, and root for, a mad, satanic, egotistical, murderous, church-building architect. Here’s a brief extract:
Then the Weight of this Life fell upon me, and I could scarce speak. I went presently out of Scotland Yard into Whitehall: I walked to the Chandlery and then, to still my beating Mind, I entered into the Church-Yard beside the Abbey. I take Delight in stalking along by my self on that dumb silent Ground, for if it be true that Time is a Wound then it is one that the Dead may Heal. And when I rest my Head upon the Graves I hear them speaking each to each: the grass above us, they say, is of a blew colour but why do we see it and why are we not pluckt out of the earth? I hear them whispering, the long dead, in Cripplegate, in Farringdon, in Cordwainers Street and in Crutched Fryars: they are pack’d close together like Stones in the Mortar, and I hear them speak of the City that holds them fast. And yet still I burn at Walter’s recent words as this Thought comes to me: why do the Living still haunt me when I am among the Dead?
You can see that the odd Capitalisation and weird Antick spellings of Obscure words do most of the work in making the Text seem like it was wrytten in 1815 rather than in 1985. It makes you appreciate how English is constantly evolving as a language and how it can be expressed in many personal and vernacular forms. Often the best written books are the ones that take a joy in language and experiment with it too. Later on there are even play-like sections and songs, which add to the colour and flavour of it all.
The modern strand, set in the eighties, is excellent to start with, taking the points of view of a victim and of a homeless man who, in a parallel of the eighteenth century story line, ends up homeless, mentally ill, and migrating to London. However, once the titular Hawksmoor was introduced, everything felt a bit rushed and undercooked. I think there is much more that could have been done with the character and the business of investigating the murders in the modern strand of the story. Ackroyd alludes to the parallels between the victims in the past and present, but to my mind never goes the whole hog in linking the perpetrator and the detective. If indeed they are linked.
The first eight chapters take up over two thirds of the novel and in the last four everything spins out of control for both Dyer and Hawksmoor. Sadly the reader goes into a spin too (or at least this one did). Perhaps it was I who rush-read the end in my eagerness to reach the conclusion. Perhaps I feel a bit cheated because I waited so long for Hawksmoor to enter the narrative and when he did he was more a bit sub-Morse. Perhaps I have grown too used to detective serials on the TV in which the crime is solved in an hour of screen time in which I can usually predict the killer. Perhaps the events being described in the novel are madness and so should have no expectation of logic. It is a fiction after all.
Perhaps my favourite book that features two parallel narratives is “Inversions” by the late Iain M. Banks. This novel, perhaps the least of his Culture novels by dint of featuring the Culture just barely, alternates chapters between two characters in two different situations and never brings them together at all - at least not in an explicit authorial sense. The whole purpose of that novel and its distinct interleaved plots is to invite the comparisons between the two (admittedly contemporaneous) stories. Would Hawksmoor have worked better with no overlap in its two parallel narratives? Maybe.
Despite the reservations and confusions discussed here, I enjoyed reading “Hawksmoor” and have no hesitation in recommending it. I will certainly read it again at some point in the hope of better understanding it. If you do read it and you aren’t confused by the ending, feel free to post your explanation in the comments!
Finally, at the book club I attended during my time as a PhD student in Bath, we once read a book called Murther And Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies. I had no appetite for it at the time and barely read it. I think that I might enjoy that novel a little more now. Sometimes a book comes along at the wrong time and you just don’t get.