Postmodern Mysteries: Hawksmoor Reviewed

Ackroyd, Peter. Hawksmoor. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

Where to begin with this one. How about a summary, I can do that:

Around 1711–1715, London architect Nicholas Dyer is building seven churches. The churches are all being built on various ancient sites around London—places where there are plague pits, ancient cemeteries, or the remains of older churches, both Christian and pagan, because in those spots there is “an Assembling of Powers” (p. 23). Dyer follows a sort of pantheistic syncretic religious tradition that, for reasons that aren’t completely revealed, requires someone to die at the site of each of his churches. In one case, the problem is solved by the son of a stonemason falling off the scaffolding; in other cases, Dyer murders someone and buries them on the site or leaves their body there to be found later.

In the twentieth century (no date is given, but it’s presumed to be modern times, i.e. 1985 or so), Nicholas Hawksmoor is investigating a series of murders at a bunch of London churches. All the murder victims have the same names as those killed by Dyer—and that’s not the only similarity. For example, Dyer’s assistant is Walter Pyne and Hawksmoor’s is Walter Payne. Bits of rhymes survive across the centuries to be recollected dimly by various characters. And of course, the places that the characters visit are basically the same—London is, after all, a very old city.

To add somewhat to the confusion, there actually was an eighteenth-century architect named Nicholas Hawksmoor, who worked (as Dyer does) under Sir Christopher Wren and built several (six)[1] churches in London in the early eighteenth century, and his churches were mentioned in From Hell as being symbolic of a weird, pantheistic (in that book, Masonic) tradition.[2]

The book alternates between the first person recounting of Dyer—written in a very credible eighteenth-century English—and a twentieth century omniscient narrator. Thus although the death happens before the end of the first chapter, we don’t actually meet Hawksmoor until almost halfway through, which in a traditional mystery novel would be quite odd. It does make it much easier to sympathize with Dyer as a character over Hawksmoor, who remains aloof.

Hawksmoor has been seen as a postmodern novel by critics (though not specifically by its author, evidently) and has won a lot of awards. The book itself is steeped in symbolism and has attracted a lot of notice from academics. I found it interesting intellectually, but I didn’t feel any real emotional pull. The parallels between the eighteenth century and twentieth century start to make the two parts kind of repetitive and predictable. I enjoyed parts of it, and I like the idea a lot, but I don’t think I really liked the book all that much.

One major theme in the novel is the “battle” between chaos and rationalism, with Dyer and his ilk representing chaos and Sir Christopher Wren and the Royal Society. The 1700s were the beginning of the Enlightenment, and Wren argues that people are beginning to look at the world rationally. Dyer, on the other hand, sees the myriad ways in which people are terrible to each other, wrapped up in superstitions, uneducated, stupid, willfully blind to the truth, and sees the world as being on an unalterable downward spiral. The assumption of the book is that in the twentieth century, Wren’s rationality has won (represented, for example, by Walter Payne’s computerization of police work), but Dyer’s chaos echoes through in the churches (and certainly touches Hawksmoor, who begins to descend into madness during the course of his investigation). I am not sure what the conclusion is, who Ackroyd thinks has won; probably a case could be made for either. For my part, looking at the world today I am pretty sure chaos is winning—people are still controlled by superstitions, which they spend immense amounts of time arguing about and even killing each other over; politicians are controlled by corporations instead of listening to their constituents; we’re unwilling to treat other people like human beings on the most specious of characteristics—race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion or lack thereof—one would think, in a civilized world, we wouldn’t need laws to tell people to treat each other nicely, it should be common sense. Americans are more willing to give up their lives than to admit that global warming is happening and have to give up their lifestyle. In short, things are pretty bleak.[3]

And yet. As much as I am convinced that this is a crappy time of human history to be alive, this book reassures me that between the plague and the London fire, the admission of tourists to see the madmen housed at Bedlam, to say nothing of the French Revolution (not mentioned in the book but a prominent event of the eighteenth century nevertheless), every time of human history has always been a crappy time to be alive.[4]

A slightly more optimistic ending that I wrote and couldn’t decide what to do with:

If you read the footnotes, you’ll see I referenced Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln, who was a blood libel martyr—that is, in around 1255 CE, he was found dead in a well, and someone claimed he had been killed by Jews;[5] as a result of this and some other political factors relating to the collection of taxes from Jews, ninety Jews were arrested and eighteen were hanged.

Seven hundred years later, in 1955, the Anglican Church put up a plaque apologizing for the whole thing. While seven hundred years is certainly a long time to wait to issue an apology, it’s a start. I’m still pretty sure we’re doomed, but, eh.


[1] Interestingly, six of the churches named in the book are real and were built by the historical Hawksmoor; the seventh, the church of Little St. Hugh, is named for a blood libel “martyr” (entirely appropriate for this book).

[2] That’s not to cast aspersions of any sort on the real Hawksmoor, just to note that this book was an influence on Alan Moore.

[3] Alternative sound track suggestion.

[4] I hear there were some days in 1962 that were pretty nice (somewhat dependant on where you were living).

[5] Typically, blood libel accusations included Jews killing Christian children and, in an ironic communion-like twist, using their blood to make matzos.

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4 thoughts on “Postmodern Mysteries: Hawksmoor Reviewed

  1. In his book IN SEARCH OF MERLIN, Nicholas Tolstoy says that in the late Classical period and the early Dark Ages, the indigenous Britons (Celtic pagans, whose priests were “Druids”) believed that important buildings like temples required the body of a sacrificed human to be placed in the foundation. Of course, once the people were converted to Christianity (by the 8th century?), that custom vanished.

    One legend dating from the 6th-7th centuries CE has Merlin himself as the designated sacrifice for such a building. He saved himself by showing the king who wanted the building to be built that there were two dragons fighting under the foundation. Once the dragons were removed, the building was constructed without sacrificing anyone.

    I do not know how many buildings (if any) from this period have been found with skeletons under the foundations, or whether any skeletons that might have been found showed signs of having died violently.

    Perhaps this old custom has something to do with the murders that occur in the plot of the book.

    • I would say that’s very likely, since the main character mentions the Druids and their sacrifices, and some of the churches are built on sites that (Dyer, at least, believes) held ritual significance.

      My feeling is they find skeletons all the time in London–if you look at that map I linked to, there are actually plague pits all over, and who knows what else. The place has been continuously inhabited for potentially seven thousand years (the earliest structures found date from 4500 BCE). I would actually be a little shocked if you could till your garden in London without hitting a skull.

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