On the first page, readers are informed that old Greggs, librarian of Duke's College, Cambridge, has died horribly-"crushed beneath a giant concordance to the whole works of Shakespeare" that fell on him from a high shelf. Evidently, what we have here is a murder mystery in a fairly unusual setting.
A few pages later, it develops that Duke's has a long history of strange, supernatural manifestations: "We were nearly haunted right out of existence back in the 19th century, when every undergraduate was finding a spook under his bed . . . The Master finally had to pass an ordinance that the next member of the College to see a ghost would be automatically expelled." So perhaps we are dealing with ghost story.
But that is only the first chapter. In the second, the reader is suddenly shifted to December, 1146, and observing the plight of a 14-year-old-boy, Geoffrey, who is being packed off to a monastery to expiate his pubescent sins. A historical novel?
Actually, "Celestial Chess" is, to some degree, all of the above and a bit more. As the title implies, there is a chess element in the plot. There is also, less obviously implied, a touch of astronomy. There is the story of a curious adventure of scholarly discovery, and a haunting tale of a family under a curse, of dark deeds performed eight centuries ago whose influence reaches into our own time. Thomas Bontly has set himself a complicated task in this novel, and he carries it off impressively if not quite perfectly.
The book is built on two parallel stories: that of David Fairchild, an American medieval scholar who comes to Duke's in the 1960s, and Geoggrey Gervaise, a medieval priest, poet, master of chess and scholar. Linking these two lives, across eight centuries, is a manuscript poem written by Gervaise and being deciphered by Fairchild-a poem at once beautiful and arcane, with a terrible secret at its core that no scholar before Fairchild has been able to unravel.
The Gervaise manuscript is part of a curious medieval collection given to the college in the 18th century by an eccentric benefactor who later disappeared mysteriously. Curious happenings have been associated with it ever since; apparitions, disappearances, unexplained deaths-old Gregg is one example-all accomplished so unobtrusively that nobody suspects anything amiss until Fairchild comes along.
After examining the manuscript and the circumstances, the American becomes convinced, against his more sober judgment, that there are powerful forces that want the manuscript's secret kept unbroken. And of course he proceeds to break it, discovering that the poem includes an account of a cosmic chess match played between Gervaise and the devil-a match in which , even at this late date, he may be able to intervene to free the tormented soul of the proud, impetuous priest.
In summary, it sounds like a hodge-podge, and in less skilled hands such a story could easily have become a mere piece of pretentious spookery. But Bontly does an expert job of making the improbable convincing. A scholar himself, he gives a fine three-dimensional picture of the lives of scholars, today and in the 12th century, and even better, he knows how to convey the almost feverish dedication to a small corner of knowledge that can make such lives quietly exciting.
Particularly vivid, though sketched in relatively few bold strokes, is his portrayal of the brilliant, tortured Gervaise embattled by political and philosophical enemies, struggling against his own sexual drives, idealistic and arrogant enough to challenge the devil himself to a battle of wits. By the end of the book, Gervaise is a real presence-more so than the various professors, scholars, county parsons and sinister members of a devilworshipping cult who also populate the book, though they are quite vivid enough.
The book's shortcomings are purely technical and should not disturb lovers of unusual suspense fiction unless they are also connisseurs of chess and of medieval poetry. Bontly's plot requires belief in an old poem of unusual power and deep intricacy, and the few samples of it that are quoted do not really support what is assumed about its qualities, or even its age. He also talks about a chess game of cosmic dimensions without giving any clear idea of what happened in that game-what was the position in which Gervaise was trapped for eight centuries before Fairchild came along to make for him the final, quixotic, liberating move.
On these points, the author needs some help from the reader's imagination-a suspension of disbelief somewhat more willing that usual. But he aids and motivates such an act of literary faith by the fine style of his writing and by the intricacy with which his plot is woven together.