After the apparent suicide of his best friend, disgraced Elizabethan scholar Henry Cavendish gets hired to retrieve a letter his friend “borrowed” from a wealthy collector in Louis Bayard's new literary thriller, The School of Night (Henry Holt, 320 pp.). (The rumored School of Night was an intellectual society where Sir Walter Ralegh – apparently scholars have ditched the “i.” Who knew? – playwright Christopher Marlowe, and others met in secret to study and talk about things that could have gotten them killed in 16th -century England.)
Then the friend's rare book collection is stolen and the bodies start piling up. But wait, you might be thinking, as does a female character, “But Styles is a book guy. I mean, book guys – they drink tea, they wear cardigans.” They also hire hulking Swedish henchmen. If that's not scary enough, Bayard proffers up the specter of a social media “Romeo and Juliet”: “OMG, Romeo. LOL. ILY 24-7.”
Bayard toggles back and forth between present-day and 1603, where School of Night scholar Thomas Harriot is laying low and conducting his experiments. As for Harriot, I have no idea how I made it all the way through college without ever hearing of him. “England's Galileo” was the first scientist to explore the New World, used a telescope to map the moon, saw Halley's comet years before Halley, and was “doing pretty much everything Galileo was doing while Galileo was doing it,” as Bayard explains. While there's a subplot involving visions that left me flat, the history is fascinating, and Bayard includes enough double-dealing to give a con man whiplash.