Peter Ackroyd’s historical novel is a hard-nosed crime/espionage thriller with enough sex, violence, intrigue and suspense to translate to popular television – although I don’t fancy our unstable American cousins would contemplate it, the potential for excess and grossness and, er, “reality” notwithstanding.
A conspiracy among England’s power elite seeks to support an illegal power-grab (by Henry IV, in 1399) by staging a diversionary publicity stunt, comprising a series of church bombings. Things go wrong, as they do, and quite a few people are killed for reasons of urgent political expediency by a mysterious double agent/agent provocateur, an Augustinian friar named, emblematically you may well think, Exmewe. (Out of me – we?)
A “mad” nun, whose cryptic ravings are disturbingly popular among the rumour-dependent population of London, plays an obscure but important part. Threatened by some of her superiors with the judicial savagery that characterised the Christianity of that time (and parts of the US today), she is apparently protected by other arms of the system.
That’s enough plot, which can be said to thicken in the usual way.
London itself is an important character. It is both primitive and already ancient, but it has a restaurant-going privileged class who can afford luxury and refinement, even if they are paradoxically brutish. It seethes with brawling lowlife, and is recklessly filthy and superstitious. A dangerous fundamentalist cult promotes lunatic violence. An enormously bloated religious class straddles society, attempting to throttle its own internal opposition, the Lollards. They have a social justice agenda, which naturally enrages the ruling class. In the wider world, adventurist entrepreneurs promote a speciously religious war against Islam. You may think that Ackroyd is making a point or two.
Many an English literature graduate can be seen to yawn when they hear the name Chaucer. And if those people should foolishly choose to ignore one of our brightest cultural treasures, we should not be surprised if the rest of the novel-reading public yawn with them. There’s no way round it: if you want to enjoy Chaucer, you will have to do something akin to “work”. And this novel is by someone who knows and loves their – our – Chaucer, and expects the same from those readers who want to get the most out of this stimulating read.
For years I used to read about four novels a week, but things change and the time came when I realised it was years since I had read one. So, when this turned up, it was rejuvenating to feel again the simple but intense pleasure to be got from plain good writing.