Well, I guess it was inevitable that I would eventually read a Bayard novel that disappointed, and I’m afraid this one was it. The characters were as fully-fleshed as ever, the language as lovely and the plot as imaginative as the three earlier novels of his that I’ve read, so I guess disappointment is a relative term. But his ending I found to be a double cop-out, and that was a definite source of frustration for this reader.
The School of Night is a reference used by modern-day historians of the late Elizabethan period in England to a collection of prominent thinkers, philosophers, mathematicians, writers, and scientists who secretly gathered under the anonymity of nighttime to discuss heady and heretical topics of religion, government, science, astronomy, alchemy, and much more. They were said to be associates of Sir Walter Raleigh who, following the death of Queen Elizabeth, was confined to the Tower for the rest of his life for alleged anti-monarchical and atheistic tendencies. His “confederates” in the School of Night were either assassinated, executed or scattered, leaving the brilliant Renaissance scholar, astronomer, mathematician Thomas Harriot to lie low on the estate of the sympathetic Earl of Northumberland.
And this is where Bayard steps in. Fast forward to 2009. According to the novel, a recently-surfaced letter from the imprisoned Raleigh to Harriot which referred to their mysterious School of Night, was stolen by eccentric New York collector Alonzo Wax just before his suicidal dive into the Potomac. Wax’s friend Henry Cavendish, an impoverished scholar who had been disgraced years earlier when his discovery of a Raleigh letter proved to be a fake, is left the executor of Wax’s estate. Cavendish is approached by wealthy British collector Bernard Styles who claims the Raleigh letter was rightfully his, and who pays Cavendish to find it among Wax’s collection. What Cavendish finds instead is a pre-suicide missive from Wax directing him to two other individuals equally fascinated with the School of Night, and they take off on a thrilling and ever-changing cross-continental treasure hunt, all told from Cavendish’s rather droll perspective. Meanwhile, bodies start to drop as the sinister Styles pursues them—and the treasure.
In an effort to provide a background to Harriot’s treasure, Bayard alternates chapters of the famous scholar’s dramatic story with the modern-day hunt for it by Cavendish et al. As usual with Bayard, there are exciting chases scenes, code deciphering, bad guys and brutal murders, romance, betrayal, and clever—even funny—dialogue which bring both parts of this story to life. What I hated, really hated, was [spoiler alert] the author’s decision to “fix” Cavendish’s shattered state toward the novel’s conclusion with an absurd device totally unworthy of this fine author. And then, just as I approached the novel’s second conclusion—a Bayard signature–, the author did it again, unfortunately employing the mantle of fiction to put in his rather specious two cents on the infamous “Who was Shakespeare, really” debate. A cheap shot, I thought, which spoiled—for me, at least–an otherwise finely drawn mystery.