With his debut literary historical novel Love’s Alchemy (Five Star Cengage, 392 pp), author Bryan Crockett has managed his own dazzling bit of alchemical wizardry: he has unearthed a tiny undocumented slice of the otherwise outsized, thoroughly recorded lifetime of one of literary history’s earliest rock stars, John Donne, and turned it into an engaging, intriguing, and fully realized bit of who-can-say-it’s-not-so alternative history.
Calling this “a John Donne mystery” implies both that there is something of a whodunit surrounding a body, and that this is one of a series of books featuring everyone’s favorite Jacobean poet as a 17th century sleuth. Labels aside, the choice of Donne as a protagonist is a brilliant bit of casting. The perfect embodiment of the tug-of-war between the sacred and the profane in both his poetry and his life, Donne’s presence opens the window on so many elements of his time—political and religious perhaps even more so than literary—and Crockett takes advantage of them all to weave an erudite and compelling tale.
It is 1604, and James I has been on England’s throne for less than a year. Though he was Elizabeth’s most obvious successor, his ascendency was far from certain; thus, one way James sought to strengthen his base was to promise Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland and defender of Catholics, that he would be lenient toward Catholics as long as they didn’t openly flout the laws against religious practice. Once crowned, though, James and his Secretary of State Robert Cecil—chief strategist in bringing James to the throne—have clamped down on practitioners of the faith, mirroring Elizabeth’s brutal intolerance. Catholicism is treasonous, of course, since Catholics hold their highest earthly allegiance to the pope, and Jesuits in particular have a history of and reputation for inciting violence and promulgating martyrdom as an effective agent of social change.
In this, Donne’s backstory is particularly on point. He comes from a prominent—the Crown says notorious—Catholic family, in which two of his uncles were leading Jesuits, one having spent time in the Tower of London before being banished; his mother, great-niece of the martyred Thomas More himself, lives in exile in the Netherlands after helping another Jesuit escape prison; and Jack’s own beloved younger brother Henry died in prison from the plague after being tortured for harboring priest William Harrington, who in turn died an ugly martyr’s death. This last episode more than any is the one Donne points to in explaining why he lost faith in Catholicism and became a Protestant, but it is a question he wrestles with throughout the novel, believing that both sides are misguided.
Against this backdrop, we’re introduced to the young Donne family, which is going through its own trying times. At 32, Jack, as we come to know him, is already well-schooled, well-traveled, and well-known, especially as a ladies’ man and writer of titillating poetry. He has had the beginnings of a good career in the law, with a seat in Parliament and a position as the chief secretary to Lord Keeper Thomas Egerton, which makes his prospects at court favorable. All that has crumbled, unfortunately, in the face of what Jack himself might decry as cliché: he fell in love with the Lord Keeper’s young niece Anne, entrusted to him by Egerton himself to tutor appropriately. The two married in secret, without her titled father’s permission. The upshot of the ensuing unpleasantness is that Jack now has no position, no income, no home of his own in which to shelter his growing family—Anne is already expecting their third child in three years of marriage—and virtually no prospects. He is currently hoping to cultivate a wealthy patron for his poetry, the oh-so-enticing Lady Lucy, Countess of Bedford. Crockett uses the opportunity to imagine Donne’s creative process; almost as the story opens, we hear the poet playing with the building blocks of the novel’s title poem.
Jack’s late-night summons by none other than Robert Cecil, the king-maker himself, propels the action of the story. Employing a deft mix of enticements, tokens of sincerity, and veiled threats to convince Jack to cooperate, Cecil recruits him to a particularly distasteful bit of spying: Jack is to pretend to convert back to Catholicism to ferret out a mysterious but apparently very dangerous man known only as Guido. As proof of his good intent, Cecil offers Jack some delicately personal information about himself that involves Jack and Anne, but it’s clear to Jack that he needs to figure out Cecil’s endgame before he becomes its victim.
So the mystery is not a whodunit but a whoisit (and where, and what is he up to, and why does Cecil care), and the tension builds as the outlines of a plot come into focus and Jack has to decide whom to trust. Left at home, Anne proves herself no passive Penelope, instead using her own smarts to make crucial connections and further Jack’s cause. If Anne in particular appears to have more modern sensibilities than we might expect from a woman in the early 1600s, her character still feels right; she would need to be an exceptional woman to capture and keep the heart and head of Jack Donne.
Crockett builds a marvelous fiction out of what is almost entirely known fact. Virtually all of his characters are historical figures, and he has captured them doing much of what they are known to have done; he simply adds in a few what-if plot points along with behind-the-scenes action that, it’s plausible to imagine, simply never made it to the history books. Even the cover art harkens to the historical record: it shows a dark and smoldering Jack Donne, only his face and full red lips illuminated, with an impossibly broad-brimmed hat pulled down to cover part of his face; that artwork is clearly a reflection of the famous 1595 portrait, in which his younger self gazes out—same red lips, same illuminated flesh—but with that broad-brimmed hat pushed back to frame his entire face. At times, the richness of the history dazzles in a mere hint, as when Crockett reminds us that Shakespeare, Jonson, and Donne were all immediate contemporaries, living and working in the same city at the same time. Imagine the possibilities, then, as Anne describes what happens after she and Jack go to see King Lear at the Globe Theatre: “ . . . he saw me home and then went to the Mermaid to drink with the author. It was almost dawn when he came home, drunk and full of the raucous life of the alehouse. He wanted to bandy words with me, as he had done with Shakespeare, Jonson, and the others.” Talk about a pub-crawl for the ages.