Title: The School of Night
Author: Louis Bayard
Release Date: March 29, 2011
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Genre: Mystery, Historical Fiction
Rating: 4 out of 5
Henry Cavendish is a disgraced Elizabethan scholar who is mourning the death of his close friend, Alonzo Wax. At Alonzo’s funeral, Henry is approached by Bernard Styles, an Elizabethan collector and enemy of Alonzo’s. He claims that Alonzo stole an original Sir Walter Raleigh letter from him and pays Henry to find it among Alonzo’s things and deliver it to him. Desperate for money, Henry accepts the charge, but by doing so, he becomes caught in a web of intrigue, unsure of whom to trust or what to believe.
The School of Night centers around the concept of a mysterious and shadowy group of people who lived in Elizabethan England. They included some of the best minds and most famous personalities of the time, including Sir Walter Raleigh (spelled Ralegh in the book – apparently, according to the novel, that is how historians have begun to spell it, but I can’t bring myself to leave off that “i”), scientist Thomas Harriot, and playwright Christopher Marlowe. The letter that Bernard Styles is seeking supposedly proves the existence of this group, hence his willingness to pay Henry to find it.
Louis Bayard does an excellent job weaving the historical elements with those set in the present day. Most of the novel takes place in the present, though it does flash back to Thomas Harriot. While I was more engaged in the present-day affair, simply because I really appreciated the character of Henry Cavendish, it was gratifying to learn about a lesser known person from Elizabethan times. Bayard could have focused on one of the more famous personages from the era, but instead chose Thomas Harriot, a scientist whose name isn’t known among the general public. I enjoyed learning something while I was enjoying this gripping novel, and his inclusion gave the novel a depth it otherwise might have been lacking.
The mystery is actually an old fashioned treasure hunt, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a fun story that doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is great. At the same time, though, Bayard’s writing creates a wonderful sense of atmosphere, such that the reader isn’t sure of who to trust over the course of the story. There’s also a wonderful love story hidden behind the mystery; it’s sweet and tragic, and adds yet another layer to this interesting book.
The School of Night was my first Louis Bayard novel, but it definitely won’t be my last. I am now excited to go back and read his previous novels while I eagerly anticipate his next work. I had a tremendous amount of fun reading this book, and I think historical fiction and mystery lovers will both enjoy this one.