Holsinger, a native of Fairfax, Va., takes on the novelist’s mantle draped in academic robes. A Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities fellow, he teaches medieval literature at the University of Virginia. You do not want to challenge the good doctor to a “Canterbury Tales” trivia contest. After a decade of writing monographs such as “Lollard Ekphrasis: Situated Aesthetics and Literary History,” Holsinger seems the last author we’d turn to for exciting skulduggery. But perhaps all those years trying to engage sleepy college students with the details of Ye Olde England have taught Holsinger what the Summoner figured out 600 years ago: Don’t underestimate the value of a good fart joke.
“The Burnable Book” takes place in 1385, when the walled city of London is still finding its footing after the Peasants’ Revolt four years earlier. As the Hundred Years’ War drags on, young Richard II faces myriad threats inside and outside his country. Who knows when fresh blood may flow between the Earl of Oxford and the king’s uncle, John of Gaunt?
But this story scurries along the grimy underbelly of London and its surrounding towns. The complicated gearwork of the city turns through these pages in rich detail, as thousands of men, women and children struggle to scrape together enough coins to avoid starvation. (This was back in the good old days before unemployment insurance ruined everybody’s work ethic.) Butchers and spicerers, gravediggers and smiths, lawyers and friars: Holsinger choreographs the whole teeming economy — slicing, digging, pounding and scribbling away — along with many, many prostitutes servicing everybody from earls to bishops.
The intrigue opens during a dark night on the Moorfields. A cloaked man is beating a young woman for information. Whatever he wants to know, she won’t tell him. She screams out two lines of an allegorical poem just before he finishes her off with a hammer. This doesn’t say much for the efficacy of poetry as a defense against blunt-force trauma, but it gets the novel off to a rousing start.
That grisly death is witnessed by a prostitute who’s hiding nearby, clutching a manuscript wrapped in an embroidered cloth. Over the next several hundred pages, she and her fellow sex workers — maudlyns — struggle to figure out what to do with this book “worth dying for.” They’re an irresistible cast that includes a lucky whore whose “Pretty Woman” fantasy is about to collapse, an outrageous bawd who alternately weeps over her daughters and beats them into service, and an ingenious transvestite who switches identities according to each client’s preference. Slowly, they come to realize they’re holding an ancient book that has correctly prophesied the demise of England’s previous 12 kings. What’s worse, the 13th stanza offers a ghastly description of how Richard II himself will be butchered in just six weeks. Dangerous verse, indeed, at a time when “by statute of Parliament it’s treasonous to compass or even imagine the death of the king.” Soon everybody knows about the existence of this book and wants it, but the trouble with selling such a manuscript is that anyone suspected of having it keeps ending up dead. As the bishop of London has declared, “This is a burnable book.”
Alternate chapters are narrated in the first person by Chaucer’s friend and fellow poet John Gower. Don’t worry if you can’t remember much of his 10,000-line Latin elegy, “Vox Clamantis”; Holsinger is a graceful guide to the 14th century, lacing his thriller with just the right seasoning of antique words and all the necessary historical detail without any of the fusty smell of a documentary. Building on the known record but confidently coloring in the lacuna, he depicts Gower in the shadow of grief. His wife has died, and his son has been forced to flee to Italy. While composing moralistic poems, he supports himself in a peculiar occupation: “I have become a trader in information,” he tells us, “a seller of suspicion, a purveyor of foibles and the hidden things of private life.”
Gower’s entanglement with this dangerous tale begins when Chaucer asks him to find the missing book. “This job needs a subterranean man,” Chaucer says, “a man who knows this city like the lines of his knuckles, its secrets and surprises. All those shadowed corners and blind alleyways where you do your nasty work.” Gower knows better than to trust his old friend completely; something about this odd assignment smells worse than the Summoner’s breath. Surely, in his day job as comptroller of the customs for the port of London, Chaucer could track down the manuscript himself. Something else must be going on. “This book could hurt me,” Chaucer acknowledges. “It could cost me my life.”
Oh, for the days when men died for poetry! But Gower can’t afford to be romantic about this assignment. Powerful forces — inside and outside the government — are already grasping for these 400 lines of inflammatory doggerel. Whether it’s authentic or forged hardly matters; it could be a rallying cry for political or religious revolt, a clue to a double-agent’s treachery or a way to falsely implicate a powerful friend of the king. In a perfectly plausible, 14th-century reimagining of our chaotic Web culture, Holsinger demonstrates how this ancient verse slips out of anyone’s control, gets replicated like some damning tweet all across England and takes on constantly shifting meanings among different readers — even while more bodies pile up.
This was an age and a culture enamored of complex allegories and hidden meanings, but unfortunately the nested intrigue of Holsinger’s plot eventually grows ludicrously byzantine, which begins to sap the novel’s action even as the crisis nears. Political rivalry in London shatters into a dozen arcane conflicts involving the intricate interpretation of playing cards and embroidery. Couplets from the errant manuscript are repeated and explicated to soporific effect, as the story sprawls out to include the theological conflict with Wycliffe’s followers in Oxford, an elaborate side plot in Italy and several other story lines I struggled to track. Late in this hall of mirrors, Holsinger has Gower say, “I wondered who had come up with the ingenious contrivance,” but there can be diminishing returns to even the most ingenious contrivance.
Puzzlemeisters, though, will love this. As will anyone who wants to sink into the sights and sounds of medieval England, a world that rises up here in all its strangeness — and its surprising similarities to our own era. We know Richard II will survive many more years regardless of what some clever couplet means, but as Chaucer’s pilgrims proved, the journey can be a lot more fun than the destination.
Charles is the fiction editor of The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.