Just about everyone loves a treasure hunt --- the enigmatic map, a coded message, the promise of untold riches, the thrill of the chase, the ever-present chance of getting caught (and not just by the police). Add in a little romance, and the tale becomes Louis Bayard's latest irresistible novel.
"Against all odds, against my own wishes, this is a love story. And it began, of all places, at Alonzo Wax's funeral." Henry Cavendish had once been a promising scholar, enjoying the admiration of his peers more than he ever dared hope. Until, that is, he made a colossal blunder that plunged him deep into intellectual obscurity. And constant penury. Now his life is little more than survival. At least Henry isn't without friends. It's just that the death of Alonzo Wax has left him without his greatest friend.
As the book opens, Henry is delivering his eulogy at Alonzo's funeral. It's hard knowing what to say about a man who committed suicide. Henry misses a beat when a woman wearing a striking --- and terribly inappropriate --- scarlet dress strides confidently into the room. After that entrance, Henry has trouble regaining his rhythm. Although the stranger has disappeared by the time Henry can make his way over to her, she finds an opportunity later to present herself. Clarissa Dale is beautiful, annoying, impetuous --- and utterly appealing to Henry.
Also finding an opportunity to present himself is a polite British gentleman calling himself Bernard Styles, but Bernard has a less attractive request. He claims that Alonzo stole one of his valuable historical documents, and he wants it back. To be fair, he will pay handsomely for it. Too handsomely. Henry becomes suspicious when Bernard suggests an outrageous sum in exchange for the recovery of the purloined letter. This letter goes far toward proving the existence of The School of Night, a group that met under cover of darkness to discuss God and sensitive subjects that, if known, would lead to their certain arrest.
It has been rumored that Thomas Harriot --- a great astronomer from the 17th century --- and other notables of his time, like Sir Walter Raleigh and Christopher Marlowe, were members of the School. Is it the letter Bernard really wants, or is there a hidden message that leads to a forgotten treasure? Henry and his mates begin the hunt, with Henry remaining dubious of the existence of any treasure. But documents that have made their way into his hands point toward an ancient secret, and they appear to be genuine.
Then there are Clarissa's "visions." At night, a spirit comes to her that could be Thomas. And she starts seeing a dying woman. Clarissa is convinced she is tied to Thomas and the School of Night.
Could the School of Night have anything to do with the documents in Henry's possession? What is the treasure so cryptically written of? Is it possible that it's still there, if it ever was? And just how valid is Bernard's claim of theft? Henry has a lot of unraveling to do.
Spanning the Atlantic from Washington, DC to London, the chase takes one perilous turn after another. Intertwined with Clarissa and Henry's budding relationship are flashbacks to Thomas and his burgeoning love for a lady. Parallels and intersections abound. Just when you think you have figured out the mystery, Bayard layers on another level, much as he did in THE BLACK TOWER and MR. TIMOTHY. Once more, he proves himself master of his genre.
Reviewed by Kate Ayers on April 18, 2011