Coincidentally, this summer I read and reviewed Shadow of Night, and The School of Night by Louis Bayard is another novel that deals with the School of Night, a group of Elizabethan scholars who pursued forbidden knowledge. Its members were Sir Walter Raleigh, Thomas Harriot, and Kit Marlowe, among others. The School of Night follows events in two time periods, the present and 1603.
Ten years ago Henry Cavendish was an Elizabethan scholar with a promising future, but he was disgraced when he accepted as legitimate a forged letter supposedly by Sir Walter Raleigh and presented it at a conference. Since then, he has barely eked out a living, teaching part-time, doing editing work, and taking whatever jobs he can get. His only true friend is the eccentric Alonzo Wax, a collector and purveyor of rare books.
But Alonzo is dead, having drowned himself after trying to contact Henry, and Henry finds himself the estate executor. Shortly after the funeral, Henry is contacted by another collector, Bernard Styles, who shows him the second page of a letter by Raleigh that he alleges Alonzo stole from him. This letter makes a rare reference to the School of Night. Styles offers Henry a lot of money to find the letter in Alonzo’s papers and give it to him.
Henry also meets Clarissa Dale, who claims to have made Alonzo’s acquaintance after a lecture about the School of Night. Although she is not an academic, she has been having visions of Thomas Harriot and an assistant named Margaret and wants to find out why.
Henry has barely begun to work with Alonzo’s papers when Alonzo’s secretary, Lily Pentzler, is murdered and all of Alonzo’s books are stolen. This incident makes Henry and Clarissa wonder if Alonzo was murdered, too. Soon, Henry and Clarissa find themselves investigating the secrets of the letter.
Alternating with the present-time story is that of Thomas Harriot, the leader of the School of Night, as he explores Virginia and later works on his forbidden experiments while hidden away on the estate of the Earl of Percy. Finding that his maid servant Margaret can read, he begins to train her to assist him in his experiments.
Although I guessed one important secret early on, I found this novel deeply satisfying. It is full of twists and betrayals and has interesting characters. It treats the historical plot intelligently, and although this comment is not meant as a criticism of Shadow of Night, it deals more seriously with the School of Night than does Shadow of Night (which of course has a completely different focus).
I had not read Bayard before, but he is known for writing historical mysteries that feature such characters as a grown-up Tiny Tim (Mr. Timothy) and Edgar Allan Poe (The Pale Blue Eye). I am interested in reading more.