"The writing of many books," said Ecclesiastes, " is a weariness of the flesh," and even with the invention of the computer and instant research on the web, the construction of many plots and the devising of many characters can tire the Muse. Consider with mysteries that there are only two sorts to murder, male or female, and only so many plausible motives, led by the always dependable lust, greed, and envy, and you can see why the modern version of the Biblical scribe begins to think that books are long and novel series longer.
We crave variety and the getting of it is not always easy. That is why, despite certain reservations, I have to cheer Robert Harris, whose newest, The Second Sleep, pulls off the neat trick of setting the future in the past and lining up one mystery in order to reveal a quite different sort of crime.
Harris first gained fame with another clever premise in Fatherland. His protagonist is a Kripo detective in a post WW2 Germany, and the twist is that the Nazis, having won the war, now are trying to clean up their image, a circumstance which makes all sorts of trouble for the basically conscientious and decent investigator.
He followed up this best seller with a mystery set at Bletchley Park among codebreakers in a UK still very much in the war. After that he went further afield in history, rather than alternative history, to do a series of crime novels set in the Roman Empire. Now he has returned to the south of England to the Year of Our Risen Lord, 1468, with a priest riding an old mare toward a small town in Wessex.
The twist is that The Year of Our Risen Lord is, by our present calendar, roughly 800 years in our future. Our current technological civilization has collapsed, world population has crashed, and the folks in rural Wessex are living like their medieval ancestors with high birth and death rates, lousy sanitation, rudimentary education, a king, and a domineering church.
For various reasons, the religious establishment, recognizably a variant of the Church of England, is particularly down on history, antiquarian books and investigations and speculations of every type. It is a shock to the inexperienced Father Fairfax, our man on the mare, when he discovers that the late Father Lacy, whose funeral he has been sent to conduct, was a passionate collector of ancient
memorabilia and the possessor of a variety of heretical books.
He also possessed a letter from one Peter Morgenstern, who had speculated on possible civilization-ending dangers, including disruption of the computer networks, pandemic, climate change, nuclear war, and a host of other all-too believable perils. These speculations shock Father Fairfax, steeped as he is in the church doctrine that they are living post the Biblical Apocalypse and that it was a supernatural event, a punishment for wrong doing and secularism, that caused the great disaster.
It is in this quite ingenious setting that Harris has placed his first mystery: the real cause of Father Lacy's demise, gradually unfolds the second, much more complex mystery, that forms the substance of the novel. In effect, he has most efficiently borrowed historical descriptions of late medieval/early renaissance life in rural England to depict the future. And it works.
I am not sure the same strategy would be satisfactory in an American novel. But in Britain, where human history is not only thousands of years deep, but with many large and still visible ancient monuments, and where there are relatively homogenous populations that can trace their genetic lineage back a thousand years and more, disbelief can be suspended.
Harris' characters are easy to take, too, perhaps too easily. The main players seem suspiciously modern in their outlooks even after eight centuries of religious indoctrination, and Father Fairfax's fall from grace happens with suspicious ease. That said, The Second Sleep is intelligently put together, its real revelations pack a punch, and it certainly gets high marks for ingenuity, especially when so many best-selling authors find a format and cling to it.