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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1981

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,...

(The entire section contains 2037 words.)

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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 with the irrational; it is simply one among many frames of reference. Instead, Wren’s observation on self-fulfilling prophecy suggests that one simply builds a world around one’s chosen philosophy and lives or dies with the consequences. Hawksmoor, briefing his fellow investigators, speculates, “Some people say that the crime which cannot be solved has yet to be invented. But who knows? Perhaps this will be the first”—an attitude that eventually gets him taken off the case.

Yet in the life of the novel in both centuries, there is a substratum undercutting all events and all philosophies. This substratum is revealed through the archaeological explorations in both centuries: Dyer, a true religious eclectic, is also a passionate amateur archaeologist, able to name the gods of ancient Syrian, Ammonite, Phoenician, Druidic, and Hebrew civilizations—and to him they are all the same god. He remarks that the temples of pagan gods have been uncovered at his church sites. “We live off the Past,” he declares, striking a blow for his side in the eighteenth century battle of Ancients versus Moderns: “We can scarce walk across the Stones without being reminded of those who walked there before us. . . . It is the dark of Time from which we come and to which we will return.”

Hawksmoor’s archaeologist friend says, “As far as I’m concerned we could keep on digging for ever,” and Hawksmoor himself echoes this thought while trying to fix a starting point for his investigations: “Perhaps there is no beginning. . . . I never know where anything comes from.” It is like admitting that one cannot unearth the origin of evil.

The substratum of life also is manifested in the sad existence of both centuries’ derelicts, who huddle perennially around sputtering campfires. They are presented as fully rounded human beings, although it is from among them that most of the sacrificial murder victims are drawn. Indeed, there is a suggestion that the murderers, even while fulfilling their own religious obligations, believe that they perform a kindness by delivering their victims from such squalor—another case of multiple frames of reference.

Dyer extends this “merciful” way of thinking to all human existence. Like a medieval Albigensian heretic, he believes that life is a curse and time “the Deliverance of Man.” “No Wish more frequent among Men than the Wish for Death,” says Dyer, and he imagines a murderer telling his intended victim, “You will be sure to get what you Want.” Dyer’s own first victim is a would-be suicide, a derelict who could not summon enough courage to kill himself. Hawksmoor the detective carries Dyer’s reasoning to its logical conclusion: “There was always so strong a sense of fatality that it seemed to Hawksmoor that both murderer and victim were inclined towards their own destruction; it was his job only to hurry the murderer along.”

In this respect, Hawksmoor echoes a moral issue of vital importance in the 1980’s, when it is sometimes argued that crime victims invite their own fate; that they are subconsciously in collusion with the perpetrators. Much modern psychotherapy consists of retraining clients not to think or act like victims. While reflecting this current issue, Hawksmoor characteristically does not take a stand. Instead, in recounting the story of Little Saint Hugh, for whom one of Dyer’s churches is named, the novel suggests that whoever becomes a sacrificial victim under one system of belief may be seen simultaneously under another system as a martyr, hero, or saint:He was “a child of ten years, the son of a widow. One Koppin, a heathen, enticed him to a ritual house under ground where he was tortured and scourged and finally strangled. Then his body was left there unknown for seven days and seven nights. Immediately Hugh’s body was recovered from the pit a blind woman was restored to sight by touching it and invoking the martyr; other miracles followed.”

Legends such as this—along with the archaeological finds—become the archives of the novel’s world, indications of why rationality is no cure for its ills. There is sad irony in a remark of Hawksmoor’s assistant regarding a police computer: “You know, you could put the whole of London in the charge of one computer and the crime would go right down. . . . A memory bank. . . makes the world a safer place.” Yet the murders continue unsolved; Hawksmoor, seeing a figure on the computer screen, mutters sarcastically, “Ah,. . . the green man did it.” Dyer mocks the “Philosophy of Experiment and Demonstration. . . poor Particles of Dust which will not burie the Serpents.”

Hawksmoor’s archaeologist friend tells him that she has dug down to the sixth century, well before any of the action in the novel. Although she had hoped to dig out a key to human motivation, she now ventures the idea that perhaps human behavior has no fundamental explanation—neither in rational theory nor in superstition. Again, given the worldviews that can lead to sacrificial murder, there is irony in Hawksmoor’s reply: “It’s a theory, and a theory can do no harm.”

Neither, however, is there any safety in theories for the novel’s protagonists. Overwhelmed by life’s incurable dilemmas, both become weary unto death. The narrative is full of phrases such as “the full weariness of the evening” and “the full weight of the world.” Dyer lives oppressed by terror of having his murders found out, belying his own credo that “the highest Passion is Terrour.” Eventually both he and Hawksmoor seem to dissolve and to become virtually invisible, their personal identities rendered meaningless: “I saw a man who is not, nor ever could he be,/ Hold up your hand and look, for you are he.”

Yet, while conveying the protagonists’ own sense of their unreality, Hawksmoor gives the reader a strong sense of both character and place, evoking vividly the worlds of eighteenth and twentieth century London. With his usual air of disgust, Dyer describes a tavern he enters with a man he is about to murder: “There was a handful of Fire in a rusty Grate and a large earthern Chamber Pot in the chimney-corner; the Mixture of Scents that met us when we first entred were those of Tobacco, Piss, dirty Shirts and uncleanly Carcasses.”

Aside from its characteristically vivid style, Hawksmoor would seem to have few points of similarity with Peter Ackroyd’s other writings, which include The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983) and T.S. Eliot: A Life (1984). Yet they share the ability to enter another time and place as well as another consciousness in a wholly convincing manner. Ackroyd has given some evidence that this is one of his main objectives as a writer. He spoke of “re-creating Eliot’s presence” in the biography, and The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde ends with the dying Wilde imagining that he might enter another man’s heart as a way of salvation: “In that moment of transition, when I was myself and someone else, of my own time and in another’s, the secrets of the universe would stand revealed.” With the richly suggestive Hawksmoor, Ackroyd has taken a major step in that direction, though the path has hardly led to his characters’ salvation.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 56

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, November 15, 1985, p. 1200.

Library Journal. CXI, January, 1986, p. 98.

The London Review of Books. VII, October 3, 1985, p. 18.

New Statesman. CX, September 27, 1985, p. 34.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, January 19, 1986, p. 3.

The New Yorker. LXII, March 3, 1986, p. 104.

Newsweek. CVII, February 24, 1986, p. 78.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, November 22, 1985, p. 47.

Time. CXXVII, February 24, 1986, p. 76.

Times Literary Supplement. September 27, 1985, p. 1049.

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