(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Has any period so embodied contradiction as the 1980’s? From a distance, past eras can appear seamless, devoid of moral controversy or philosophical challenge. This impression regarding England’s early eighteenth century, in particular, is reinforced by labels such as the Age of Enlightenment and the Augustan Age.

Yet Nicholas Dyer, one of two protagonists in Hawksmoor, is an uneasy representative of that period. An orphan of an earlier London—that of the Plague and the Great Fire—he has been reared by a cult whose philosophy is “Christ was the Serpent who deceiv’d Eve. . . . Sathan is the God of this World and fit to be worshipp’d.” Paradoxically, Dyer becomes a builder of churches, employed by Sir Christopher Wren, that paragon of an age obsessed with scientific progress and the primacy of reason over what was called “enthusiasm.” Dyer holds, contrary to Wren’s beliefs, that “the miseries of the present Life. . . lead the True Architect not to Harmony or to Rationall Beauty but to quite another Game.” Accordingly, he carries out the human sacrifice required for the “consecration” of every church he builds: “The Eucharist must be mingled with Blood.”

In the twentieth century, Nicholas Hawksmoor, the second protagonist, is also an antirational holdout. A veteran police investigator, he relies heavily on intuition, rather than on scientific procedure and modern principles of criminology, to help him solve a series of murders on the sites of London churches built by Dyer.

Dyer and Hawksmoor have much more in common than renegadism: Each is also wracked by doubt and a feeling of mental disintegration. Events in their lives as well as in their minds seem to echo each other across the centuries. As the novel progresses by telling their respective stories in alternate chapters—and alternately in eighteenth century and contemporary prose—the two protagonists become virtual mirror images and eventually seem to merge in identity.

Although Dyer is a fictive character, the Hawksmoor of Peter Ackroyd’s title actually lived (from 1661 to 1736; Dyer’s dates are 1654 to circa 1715) and worked for Sir Christopher. Dyer’s twentieth century fictive counterpart appears not to realize that he bears the same name as this historical Nicholas Hawksmoor, the brilliant and unconventional architect of “huge lushious Style” who actually built the seven churches where the murders in the novel occur. This is only one of many circumstances seemingly calculated to bewilder the novel’s readers as well as its characters. As the irrationalist Dyer remarks, “There is a Mist in Humane affairs, a small thin Rain which cannot be perceeved in single Drops of this Man or that Man but which rises around them and obscures them one from another.” The twentieth century murders suggest a pattern that Hawksmoor the detective never can quite grasp. He has a growing intuition regarding the murderer (“He’s at my fingertips. . . I can reach him. I feel it”), but simultaneously his confusion grows, until “he considered the possibility that he had gone mad.”

At the heart of this novel of ideas cum mystery thriller is an intense debate between deliberate cultivation of madness—Dyer’s “Principles of Terrour and Magnificence”—and Wren’s empiricist assault on superstition. Dyer’s philosophy, in that it offers no consolation, proves the more realistic of the two. Or does it? The conflict receives definition in a pivotal scene between Dyer and Wren. Wren maintains that Dyer’s superstition constitutes what in the 1980’s would be called a self-fulfilling prophecy: “It is one of the greatest Curses visited upon Mankind. . . that they shall fear where no Fear is. . . . They fancy that such ill Accidents must come to pass, and so they render themselves fit Subjects to be wrought upon. . . . Nature yields to the Froward and the Bold.” Dyer rebuts: “It does not yield, it devours: You cannot master or manage Nature.”

In any case, one cannot master the action of this novel, so replete is it with overlapping frames of reference. How, for example, is one to interpret the apparent echoes of one century’s events in the other century, as when Dyer expresses the fear “I have said too much” after his argument with Wren, and Hawksmoor hears the same words spoken behind his back? The novel itself offers contradictory hints: that its characters are reincarnated; that the same person can exist simultaneously in different periods; that the collective human spirit, like artifacts of civilization, is made up of accumulated archaeological layers; and that events simply recur eternally. Ackroyd never permits his reader to choose finally among these explanations.

Despite the story’s intractability, then, the novelist cannot be said to side...

(The entire section is 1981 words.)