Author: Louis Bayard, 2011
Genre: Historical Fiction. Conspiracy Thriller.
Other Details: Hardback. 339 pages
The School of Night is said to have been an Elizabethan secret society centred around Sir Walter Raleigh and Henry Percy, the 'Wizard' Earl of Northumberland. Its membership was comprised of various free thinkers who met up to discuss what was then forbidden knowledge. Among those rumoured to have been members were playwright Christopher Marlow and astronomer Thomas Harriot, whose patron was Henry Percy. Although the existence of the School of Night is contested as there is no documentation, which is not really a surprise given that it was a secret group in dangerous times, Bayard uses the concept to write a quite engaging literary thriller in which a disgraced Raleigh scholar, Henry Cavendish, becomes caught up in a modern day quest linked to the long buried secrets of the group.
At the funeral of his close friend, Alonzo Wax, Henry is approached by a noted collector Bernard Styles who offers Henry a handsome sum for the return of a letter penned by Sir Walter Raleigh that Alonzo had 'borrowed' from Styles. As Henry is the designated executor of Alonzo's estate he is able to search for the letter, which he begins to do. However, just before Alonzo's suspected suicide he had sent an email to Henry in which he mysteriously stated: "The School of Night is back in session." This reference to the School of Night recalled their mutual fascination at university with the Elizabethan cabal. At the funeral he also encounters the beautiful Clarissa Dale, who claims to have received the same message from Alonzo. Clarissa tells Henry that for the last year she has had vivid dreams in which she is observing Thomas Harriot in 1603. Naturally Henry is sceptical of these dreams but is convinced of Clarissa's belief in their validity. When a colleague of Alonzo's is found murdered, the whole situation turns deadly.
Bayard moves is story between 2009 and 1603 as the story develops in both time periods, using Clarissa's visions as a bridge. There is a hunt for treasure, cryptic messages, thrilling chases and of course mortal danger. While this was a serviceable thriller at times the movement between time periods felt a little clumsy. I was also disappointed in a twist in the penultimate chapter that just seemed unnecessary though maybe that was just me. Bayard also did not appear too comfortable with the mystical elements of the story, whether dealing with Harriot's interest in alchemy or Clarissa's visions. Still it isn't an easy topic to address and overall the story satisfied and kept me happily turning the pages to see how things turned out. I also found Thomas Harriot a fascinating character and plan to seek more information about his life and work.