British author Peter Ackroyd writes wondrous fact and fiction. Somewhere between those exclusive opposites, he also writes historical fiction, some of it the “what if” variety (a special favorite of mine), some of it simply based on historical characters. My first encounter with Ackroyd was his 1985 novel Hawksmoor.
I was drawn to Hawksmoor thinking it was about the English Baroque architect who has always been on my “Top Ten” list—more often than not near the top. Yes, Nicholas Hawksmoor is the source of Ackroyd’s story, but it gets seriously more interesting than that.
There is a particular genre of storyline—it appears in fiction and non-fiction alike—involving parallel, interweaving plot lines in alternating chapters. Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City achieved much of its success through the juxtaposition of architect-planner Daniel Hudson Burnham and Victorian serial killer Dr H. H. Holmes, one coördinating construction of a great World’s Fair, the other slaughtering many of the thousands who came to be awed by its spectacle. Larson used this structure again (in Thunderstruck, about the laying of the first transatlantic cable) but with far less success, in my estimation. But Ackroyd had employed those rhythmic alternating chapters in Hawksmoor many years before.
Hawksmoor recasts the real 18th century architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, assistant to Sir Christopher Wren in the rebuilding of London following the Great Fire of 1666, as Nicholas Dyer, an architect preoccupied with the occult and performing satanic rituals at the sites of his London construction projects. Meanwhile (and in alternate chapters) a 20th century fictional Nicholas Hawksmoor is a Scotland Yard detective investigating a series of murders at the very same churches designed two centuries earlier by Dyer. The progressive mental deterioration of each man is central to the story. What interested me, not incidentally, were those London churches: real works purportedly by a fictional architect.
After the Great Fire, London’s parish churches were rebuilt with proceeds from a tax on coal. With many of the fire-damaged buildings either restored or replaced, Parliament passed a second act, the “Fifty New Churches Act”, to accommodate a growing population. The actual 18th century Hawksmoor designed six of the dozen churches underwritten by that law.
Ackroyd does exemplary work describing the power of those six buildings and weaving them into the braided lives of Dyer and Hawksmoor, architect and detective, but at the conclusion of the novel each character reaches a point-of-no-return at a seventh church, one without precedent in architectural history, the Church of Little Saint Hugh. Yet his description of that building and its significance for the events connected with it for both architect and detective were so powerfully written that I dreamed it one night. I woke the next morning with such a vivid impression of Little Saint Hugh that I went immediately to the draughting table and put its plan and elevation to paper. Like so many of my schemes, it needs development, and one of these days I’ll get around to it. In the meantime….
Some authors write word pictures with power and clarity and conjure images with equal strength. Does it matter that I’m architecturally inclined? Tell me of your own experience. When Frederick Rolfe describes the apartments renovated by his character Pope Hadrian, Rolfe conjures for me a mental picture of its spartan interior, its less-is-more aesthetic. In each of these two cases, I am compelled to show you what I see.