"An extraordinary brew" -- this description from the Financial Times is apt. The book is indeed extraordinary -- a pitch-perfect narrative from the early 18th century, written in period style, slang, and spelling, interspersed with what is ostensibly a modern crime novel. But the whole is very much a witches' brew, with undertones of persistent evil and echoes of the occult. The title character, Nicholas Hawksmoor, is a homicide detective, but do not be misled into thinking that this will turn out to be a simple whodunnit in which a brilliant feat of detection at the end will lay to rest the evils of the past. Chief Superintendent Hawksmoor does not appear until halfway through the book, and his function is more to draw out the miasma of mystery rather than dispel it.
The historical Hawksmoor was an English baroque architect, somewhat younger than Christopher Wren, responsible for rebuilding six of the London churches destroyed in the Great Fire. Whereas Wren's churches are models of classical restraint, Hawksmoor's often break with tradition with theatrical contrasts of mass and darkness; Ackroyd describes the combination as terror and magnificence. No doubt inspired by the man's extraordinary vision, and by the fact that the Office of Works at the time was located in Scotland Yard, Ackroyd has done a simple transposition, giving Hawksmoor's name to a modern detective and calling his architect Nicholas Dyer -- but Hawksmoor in all but name and beliefs. The two centuries are connected by much more than an exchange of names, however. Popular sayings, street songs, new images, and old superstitions zigzag between the alternating chapters, until the entire novel seems to be one unending nightmare. For Ackroyd's Dyer is a believer in a much older religion than Christianity, whose force reaches even to the present day.
I give the book four stars only because it is not my personal cup of tea and I found it challenging to read. But there is no doubt of Ackroyd's brilliance. Published in 1985, this is one of the first and best of those time-telescoping modern mysteries that have their roots in the past; think a small step away from the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez along a path leading eventually to Dan Brown. It is also amazingly informative. Ackroyd captures the 18th-century flavor perfectly with Dyer's writing, like a time-machine of period detail: "I had no sooner walked into Whitehall than I hollad for a Coach; it was of the Antique kind with Tin Sashes not Glass, pinked like the bottom of a Cullender that the Air might pass through the Holes: I placed my Eyes against them to see the Town as I passed within it and it was then broken into Peeces, with a Dog howling here and a Child running there...". No one sample does justice to the riches of the whole. My only problem is that the chapters are long, and the modern episodes which might have been expected to give variety, seem gray by comparison and unbearably -- though necessarily -- claustrophobic.