An Elizabethan academic flings himself from a bridge in Great Falls, Md. During his memorial service at the Folger Shakespeare Library, the dead man’s best friend, Henry Cavendish, senses things are amiss.
The body hasn’t been found, a woman in a red dress crashes the funeral, and a stranger offers him $100,000 to recover one of his friend’s 17th-century manuscripts.
The first 20 pages of Louis Bayard’s new mystery, “The School of Night,” might be chaotic, but they hook readers into a world of intrigue.
The thriller, partly set in Washington, D.C., follows Cavendish in his quest to uncover the significance of a 400-year-old letter addressed to Thomas Harriot, a scientist and philosopher from the 1600s.
His dead friend thought the paper proved that Elizabethan scholars met secretly to question the divinity of Christ, a crime punishable by death in those times. As a historian, Cavendish knows the evidence would not only alter history; it would make him a famous and wealthy scholar.
But he’s not the only one scrambling for the artifact. A wealthy British document collector with a reputation for foul play also wants the letter. This collector is rumored to have thrown a man under a bus and a professor off a building to get his hands on ancient artifacts in the past.
Things get even more complicated when Cavendish discovers another friend dead, suffocated inside a vault that once held priceless historical documents. All the papers were stolen.
When police lack the evidence needed to make arrests, Cavendish must uncover the truth about the killings and how they relate to the letter.
Written in a conversational tone, the tale begins on Capitol Hill, jumping from landmarks such as Union Station to local spots such as Bullfeathers.
As the plot unravels, readers should be prepared to switch gears. Bayard weaves a story within the story, cycling back and forth between Cavendish’s investigation and the actual circumstances of Harriot’s letter.
Readers may need to brush up on their Elizabethan thinkers, including Sir Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe and George Chapman. Their tragic fates are tied to the scandalous meetings. Those meetings mentioned in the letter affect the lives of a half-dozen people four centuries later.
Most fascinating is Bayard’s determination to tackle several genres at once. In addition to mystery, he incorporates Shakespearean history, three love stories and even a bit of fantasy into one novel. Characters in “The School of Night” decode a treasure map, search for gold, scale a 50-foot tower, experience telepathic premonitions and have sex on the beach.
Bayard keeps readers wondering who’s dead, who’s alive, who’s the killer and who’s trustworthy until the very end.
The real surprises come when characters unmask their true identities in the last 50 pages. As with any good mystery, the letter, the investigation and the characters are not what they seem.