Collected Works: Literature



by Peter Ackroyd

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An architect sits, pen in hand, teaching his apprentice how to draw out plans, dispensing advice and giving directions as he goes. It is important, he says, to ‘alwaies keep the Structure intirely in Mind’, to ‘cast the Area in as exact a Manner as can be’, and so on. His rational mentality is an asset to his work, but beneath the obsessive ordering lurks a less savoury side. To reach the ‘Heart of our Designe’, he states, ‘the art of Shaddowes you must know well’.

In the eighteenth century, Nicholas Dyer is designing seven churches to be built in London. A follower of satanic practices, he has ambitions of entombing human sacrifices within the foundations, and willingly collects the bodies himself. Two centuries later, Detective Hawksmoor investigates a series of strangulations, committed on the grounds of the same churches. The narrative of Hawksmoor alternates between the two men’s similarly morbid undertakings.

The novel is founded upon the idea of ‘the perpetual present of the past’, the largest shadow of all. Time is understood not as linear, but as something more layered, complex, and prone to repetition: expressions, events, and snippets of popular song recur across centuries. Dyer and Hawksmoor’s respective assistants, Walter Pyne and Walter Payne, almost share a name. Dyer himself is reincarnated as a tramp, a child, a killer, and a victim.

Ackroyd uses the detective genre as a literary device, in his own words, ‘to keep the plot going’. He makes a point of diverging from the genre’s core ideals, forming an anti-detective novel of sorts. Mystery is approached not as a puzzle to be neatly solved, but as something worth celebrating for its ambiguities. Hawksmoor demands our attention but provides us with no easy answers, instead pulling us in with its infinite intrigue, ever deeper into the darkness.

Words by John Wadsworth

More to discover

You can read an excerpt here. John O'Mahony has written a profile of Peter Ackroyd for The Guardian. Patrick McGrath has interviewed the author for BOMB Magazine, as have Simon Hattenstone for The GuardianJohn Preston for The TelegraphAndy McSmith for The IndependentHannah Beckerman for the Financial Times, and Oliver Thring for The Sunday Times.

Nicholas Dyer, the architect in Ackroyd's novel, is based on the real-life figure Nicholas Hawksmoor. To find out more about him, you can read Michael Moorcock's review of Owen Hopkins' book 'From the Shadows: The Architecture and Afterlife of Nicholas Hawksmoor', written for The Spectator.

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