#16: Peter Ackroyd: ‘Hawksmoor’

At #16 is Peter Ackroyd’s unconventional historical mystery Hawksmoor (1985). The first thing to say about Ackroyd’s novel is that it can only be very loosely considered crime fiction. As is the case with much of Ackroyd’s work, Hawksmoor oscillates between two seemingly incongruous time periods and plot lines. The first of these is set in the early eighteenth-century and centres around architect Nicholas Dyer’s manic construction of seven satanic churches around the East End of London. Dyer is a fictionalization of real life architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, who was commissioned to construct these very same churches in 1711 as part of an attempt to rebuild London’s Christian architecture following the damage caused by the great fire. Unbeknownst to mentor Christopher Wren, Dyer draws on his deep fascination with the occult to inspire his design of the churches. Part of this involves undertaking human sacrifices on the site of each new construction.

Meanwhile, in the 20th century, DCS Nicholas Haksmoor is tasked with investigating a mysterious string of murders that have occurred on the grounds of the very same churches. The baffling nature of the crimes is further compounded by the bizarre lack of forensic evidence left by the killer. As you might suspect, one of the central themes of the novel is the circularity of time, as events from both time periods seems to swirl into a disorientating ‘perpetual present’. This becomes most forcefully manifested in the psychic resonance of London’s palimpsestic topography. As Detective Hawksmoor delves deeper into the source of the killings and history of the churches, the spectral spaces of the city become a potent source of convergence between different time periods and characters.

Part postmodern narrative, part historical novel and part detective text, Hawksmoor is a an original and thought provoking novel. A must for fans of both crime and history!

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