Magazine article The Spectator

Hidden in the Dark

Magazine article The Spectator

Hidden in the Dark

Article excerpt

THE SCHOOL OF NIGHT by Alan Wall Secker, 10, pp. 294

There are two novels here. One, compressed on to the back cover, is about Sean Tallow, a passive monomaniac determined to `establish the truth about the School of Night, the shadowy group of Elizabethans who clustered around Sir Walter Raleigh'. Clear enough. Tallow also wants to discover `whether the man from Stratford-onAvon could really have written the plays ascribed to William Shakespeare. If he didn't, then who did?' Also clear enough. This makes up two thirds of the back cover. There is a brief mention of Tallow `stepping into the shoes of his glamorous friend Dan Pagett' and `entering a fearful world where there are no longer any rules except survival'.

Inside are the 294 pages of the novel itself. This is a series of vignettes, as from a writer's notebook, some a paragraph or two, some a short chapter. There is no `fearful world'. Simon Tallow admits early on that he has almost no information about the School of Night, of which there is a single brief mention in Love's Labour's Lost - which has nothing to do with a cast of characters around Raleigh pursuing the secrets of life and everything else. There is little for Tallow to go on - except for a 17th-century notebook with which Wall opens his novel. There is a bit of a surprise ending, related to the first page, so I won't divulge it, except to say that in good mysteries the final twist should make you realise that there were clues along the way from which a clever reader might have deduced what was coming. Irritatingly, Tallow asks, `How many years has it been since I first started pointing in the wrong direction?', admitting, `What a fool I am.' At that moment I felt vindicated in my feeling throughout Wall's novel that Tallow's decades of research would lead nowhere and that what I have assumed my entire literate life is indeed the case. A rather limp denouement, I'm afraid.

So if the novel within the covers isn't really about the hunt for the School of Night and Who Wrote Shakespeare, what is it about? It's about Simon Tallow, a literally pallid, uncombative chap, who works stolidly in the BBC News Department from which, after many years, he's suddenly fired.

I expect his colleagues found him boring. As with the other semi-disasters in his life, some of them with women who rather like him at first and then go off with someone with more zip, Tallow doesn't much mind any of this. …

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