History, for Peter Ackroyd, is a puzzle for which the novel is a solution. The puzzle, broadly speaking, is coincidence; the solution, that there is no such thing as coincidence. For “Everything is part of everything…Everything is part of the pattern,” as a character in his novel First Light puts it. His novels tend to follow the outline of a sensational historical mystery or secret—that Sir Christopher Wren’s chief architect was a devil-worshiper and murderer who embedded corpses in the foundations of his new churches; or that Thomas Chatterton, the doomed eighteenth-century poet, did not die at seventeen, but faked his death and lived into middle age. The historical mystery is central to a present-day situation which mimics it. In Hawksmoor, a detective investigates a series of murders, all at seventeenth-century London churches built by the architect and friend of Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor. In Chatterton, a struggling contemporary poet is haunted by Chatterton’s ghost when he buys a portrait of the writer in an antiques shop. In Ackroyd’s recent novel, English Music, a boy sets out to explore the mysteries of English literature by going back in time to meet Dickens and Defoe. These books are filled with shifting historical atmospheres, strange parallels, and long-standing curses.
His new novel is another puzzle, and perhaps his most ingenious yet. But it depends heavily on unlikely connections and coincidences, and one is relieved to emerge from it into a world of accident and contingency. The Trial of Elizabeth Cree is set in Limehouse and Wapping, London’s old East End, in the autumn of 1880. A number of vicious murders have prompted inhabitants and police to cast around for a suspect. The locals imagine a spirit or even a golem responsible (one of the murders is in a largely Jewish neighborhood). The police have their eye on Karl Marx, because he is seen leaving the house of Solomon Weil, one of the victims. But Marx does not remain a suspect for long. They then turn their attention to the novelist George Gissing, after he is seen leaving another victim, a prostitute called Alice Stanton, shortly before her murder. Dan Leno, the celebrated Victorian pantomime artist and Cockney comic, is questioned by police because the shirt Alice Stanton is found wearing bears a label inside it marked “Mr. Leno.”
The two characters most obviously implicated—as far as the reader can tell—are never suspected by the police: they are the book’s two chief narrators, John Cree, whose diary serves to tell part of the story, and his wife, Elizabeth, a former actress who is eventually tried and convicted for poisoning her husband.
These are only some of the characters who could be the Limehouse murderer, and Ackroyd, like any other crime writer, dupes his readers with false leads until the final disclosure comes in John Cree’s diary. But the book is not so much a historical thriller as a postmodern exercise whose purpose is less …