In The School of Night, Bayard wraps the life of genius English astronomer and mathematician Thomas Harriot into a 21st-century murder mystery centering on the evil machinations of an antiquarian book collector. Spending much of his life charged with an intimate knowledge of the behind-the-scenes machinations of monarchs, Harriot traveled to the Americas on an expedition funded by Walter Raleigh. On his return, he worked for Henry Percy, the Ninth Earl of Northumberland.
Moving between time and place from 1603 England to the Outer Banks of North Carolina and present-day London, Bayard frames his story around the apparent suicide of famous book collector Alonzo Wax and the efforts by Henry Cavendish, his long-term friend, to unlock the secrets behind Alonzo’s untimely death.
Haunted by Alonzo’s final message, Henry meets Bernard Styles. In the same collecting line as Alonzo, the avaricious Styles talks of a priceless document written by Walter Raleigh, the legendary Queen’s consort. The manuscript is definitive proof that a group called The School of Night existed. Consisting of some of England's most famous men, the group was the most secretive, most brilliant, and
most daring of all Elizabethan societies.
While Raleigh was exiled to his estate in Dorset, working to gather the greatest intellects of his generation to throw “a quiet little knife into the heart of Elizabethan orthodoxy," Harriot finds himself ensconced in the relative solitude of Sherborne Castle, where his encounters with Margaret Crookenshanks form much of the backbone of the novel. A servant placed in the service of Harriot, Margaret’s surprising ability to read sparks Harriot's romantic interest in her.
As master and muse come together under a cloud of lamplight, conducting laborious measurements in alchemy, Harriot’s words evaporate beneath Margaret's innocent devotion. Back in Washington, Henry is quickly seduced by Clarissa Dale, who in her yellow sundress seems to know more about Alonzo than she’s letting on. When Henry falls into the reluctant employ of Styles, surprisingly it
is Clarissa and Alonzo who wind an invisible cord of deception around him.
From the gruesome depiction of the plague years and their tangled weave of human limbs, Bayard’s primary focus is on the shadowy ghost of Alonzo and the clandestine meetings of The School of Night. Then there’s Harriot’s remarkable world of numbers and angles, as intricate as the unique words of Shakespeare. Harriot’s complexities shine against a background of murderous intrigue, state-sponsored torture, and suppressed intellectual dissent.
While the scenes in contemporary London fall a bit short, events propel a final cloak-and-dagger twist as Harriot and Margaret attempt to hurl themselves at immortality with tragic results. Much like the rhythmic sounds of Shakespeare’s love sonnets, Henry ends up floating along as the unexpected star, solving murders and locating buried treasure while also finding true love in one of the unlikeliest of places.