Saturday, April 16, 2011

"The School of Night"

With his three most recent novels, The Black Tower, The Pale Blue Eye, and Mr. Timothy, Louis Bayard, in the words of the Washington Post, has ascended to "the upper reaches of the historical-thriller league." A New York Times Notable author, he has been nominated for both the Edgar and Dagger awards and has been named one of People magazine's top authors of the year.

He applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, The School of Night, and reported the following:
The last time I did this test, the 69th page wasn’t too representative, at least not plotwise. This time around, I was impressed by how neatly it encapsulates the whole novel.

To begin with, page 69 gives us the book’s true hero: a real-life Elizabethan scientist named Thomas Harriot, who is living “in quiet and seclusion, with Welsh mountain ewes for company.” We meet two of Harriot’s boon companions: Christopher Marlowe (“murdered at the height of spring’s glory”) and Walter Ralegh. And we hear tell of a “School of Atheism,” of which Harriot himself is the reputed master.

We get a healthy dose of political context, too. Queen Elizabeth “has done something no one was quite sure she would: She has died.” In short, the year is 1603, and from Scotland, Elizabeth’s successor James is sweeping down … and making life harder for Sir Walter. “James favors peace, Ralegh lives for war. James loathes tobacco, Ralegh trades in it. James is pious, a theologian. And Ralegh….” Well, that School of Atheism is a tough thing to live down.

And yet some part of Ralegh still pines for it. “In parlous times,” he writes Harriot, “it is great joy to think upon that homely School, where we were glad to gather.” This fragment of letter will travel down through time, launching an international treasure hunt that draws modern-day seekers deeper and deeper into Ralegh’s and Harriot’s world.

And further into peril. The page’s first line alludes to Socrates’ cup of hemlock; the last line cites the ever-present threat of “intelligencers,” Elizabethan for “spies.” The stakes, very clearly, are high.

Well done, page 69.

And, by the way, I now use this test myself whenever I’m browsing at bookstores. Works every time. Almost.
Learn more about the book and author at Louis Bayard's website.

The Page 69 Test: Louis Bayard's The Black Tower.

The Page 69 Test: Louis Bayard's The Pale Blue Eye.

--Marshal Zeringue