In 1985 British author Peter Ackroyd published Hawksmoor, a novel that sold itself to me. How could it not?
Eighteenth century British architect Nicholas Hawksmoor has been on my “Top Ten” since Bill Burgett told us about him in Architectural History III over fifty years ago; I was also twenty, with eclectic tastes. This was the first of several books by Ackroyd added to our shelves, which puts him in a class with Robert Harris, another of my favorite writers of fiction. So I bought the book for its title, hoping the plot might have a stronger connection than that with an eccentric architect of the short-lived English Baroque. It did and rewarded me beyond what an author might anticipate.
Before trying to summarize a book I haven’t read in twenty years, let me preface a faltering memory with some words about Hawksmoor himself. The actual Nicholas Hawksmoor [1661-1736] served as Clerk of the Works to Sir Christopher Wren, honing his craft under one of the keenest British minds of his. As an apprentice of sorts, Hawksmoor superintended many of Wren’s multiple buildings, several of which were in various states of simultaneous construction during a career that included much beyond mere architecture. Later he collaborated with Sir John Vanbrugh, playwright-turned-architect, and only then produced work in his own name.
Rebuilding London after the Great Fire proceeded apace with the rapidly increasing population. Parliament passed the “Fifty Churches Act” of 1711 to meet the spiritual needs of a growing city, and Hawksmoor received six of the twelve commissioned by that act. And the sequence of those six churches establishes a spine for Ackroyd’s novel: six crime scenes, twelve crimes in two centuries, because the fictionalized 18th century architect is Nicholas Dyer, and Hawksmoor serves as a 20th century Scotland Yard detective.
Mysticism and the occult link the crimes in pairs, 18th and 20th century, at each of the actual Hawksmoor churches. But the end of each alternating plot line—shades of Erik Larson and devil in the White City—occurs at a seventh Hawksmoor church, one that does not nor never did exist. So skillfully does Ackroyd take us to that final fatal site, along real streets and alleyways to a square of his imagining, that I saw the seventh church, one dedicated to Little Saint Hugh, in a dream one night and woke with memory so vivid I could draw it the following day.
That has been and will continue to be the goal of Agincourt: narratives; stories of such familiarity and resonance that we nearly recall visiting a maiden aunt there the summer of our thirteenth year.