You will be forgiven if, upon completing Bruce Holsinger’s novel “The Invention of Fire,” you decide that the author spent his early years in late 14th-century London, later to be magically transported to our own time. Holsinger is a scholar of the medieval era who teaches at the University of Virginia. This is his second novel set in the 1380s, when King Richard II reigned somewhat precariously, London was a filthy, violent city, and an invasion by the French seemed imminent. It’s a big, sprawling story that works so well because Holsinger is blessed not only with microscopic knowledge of the period but also with the ability to transform his scholarship into fiction that is both fast-moving and graceful.
As in his previous novel, “A Burnable Book,” Holsinger places two celebrated poets, John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer, near the center of his story. Gower is not only a poet but a tireless busybody who moves about London trading coins for scraps of information; he’s a medieval private eye and narrates much of the novel. Chaucer is seen less often because he’s busy writing a long poem about a religious pilgrimage. Gower calls this work in progress “a strange melange of stories, to no purpose I could yet discern.” Still, he says of his friend, “If I dealt in coins and cunning, Chaucer dealt in words and figures, which he mingled, cooked, and distilled with the adept mastery of an alchemist.”
Holsinger’s story begins when the bodies of 16 men are found dumped in one of the city’s open sewers. Each body has small, round wounds of unknown origin. Soon we meet Stephen Marsh, the city’s most creative metalworker, who is recruited by the king’s armorer to come to the Tower and develop ever more lethal “handgonnes,” as the emerging weapons were called; they’re desperately needed to defend against the feared invasion. It becomes clear that handguns were used to kill the men, but the identity of the victims and their killers remains a mystery, despite Gower’s determined sleuthing.
We plunge into the politics of the day. Richard’s most dangerous rival is his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, who, it is said, will stop at nothing to gain the throne. We meet other political players, including London’s lord mayor, whose ambitions are threatened by a hunger that leads him into dark streets where every variety of sex awaits. Gloucester and the nation’s other powerful nobles — call them the 1 percent of the era — are pressuring Parliament to reject the war tax the king has demanded. Meanwhile, the king’s soldiers are demolishing homes and shops that have grown up just outside London’s Wall, lest they offer cover to an invading army.
We witness scenes in court where men are sentenced to be immediately hanged or to have an arm, hand, leg or foot chopped off. Gower befriends a boy of 12 or so who had both ears sliced off for stealing food. We see a child born, an innocent girl gunned down and an old lion, long kept in the Tower’s menagerie, sacrificed to test a handgun. We follow a man and woman who are fleeing the hangman; the man poached on the king’s land, and she killed an abusive husband. At first their connection to the main story is unclear, but they prove to be central.
As Marsh produces ever more deadly handguns, we witness an important chapter in the long history of weaponry. “It will be up to us to stay ahead of those who oppose us,” one of the king’s men tells Marsh. “More and better guns, more and better powder.” That arms race continues today, as handguns figure in more than 10,000 homicides annually in this country alone.
Holsinger makes clear in notes at the end of “The Invention of Fire” that much of his book is based on well-documented fact; certainly it all feels real. His story becomes increasingly complex as it relates a byzantine plot against the king. But even as I pondered each new plot twist, I was swept along by the quality of the writing and the remarkable wealth of detail; at the end I thought all its pieces came together in a satisfying whole. It’s one of the few historical mysteries I know that bears comparison with Iain Pears’s great “An Instance of the Fingerpost.” The past rarely comes this splendidly to life.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
THE INVENTION OF FIRE
By Bruce Holsinger
Morrow. 420 pp. $26.99