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Dark Sonnet
Tom McCarthy, author
Oxford, England. A Jesuit priest unearths a tattered poetic manuscript from the nineteenth century. Against universal scorn, he makes the outrageous claim that it contains a series of word puzzles pointing to the whereabouts of the Cuxham Chalice, a priceless relic of England's medieval anti-Semitic past. He suddenly disappears amidst a city in turmoil over a series of brutal slayings, and two concerned friends are determined to find him. Myles Dunn, pulled from a failed life in Colorado back to his old Oxford college, joins forces with librarian Eva Bashir to unlock the manuscript’s secrets. Battling police resistance and their own personal demons, Myles and Eva must decode the cryptic verse before the killer strikes again.
In McCarthy and Dohar’s taut thriller, an ex-Jesuit, Myles Dunn, travels back to the venerable University of Oxford, where a deadly accident years earlier cost him his faith. A distressed friend, Father Jeremy Strand, needs help decoding a newly discovered sonnet by 19th-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, which may confirm the existence of a lost medieval chalice. Oxford is reeling from a gruesome murder that locals believe is the work of Muslim terrorists. While Dunn puzzles over the poem with university librarian Eva Bashir, another murder occurs, and Strand disappears—possibly the third victim. The duo hurries to unravel the poem’s wordplay and symbols to save their friend.

The novel would benefit from tightening to reduce its hefty number of point-of-view characters. When the narration zeroes in on the main characters, including several chapters from Hopkins’s perspective, the plot picks up speed. The authors admirably connect the disparate dots—how does a “dark sonnet” shed light on a secret society from the 1500s and Britain’s history of anti-minority rancor?

An array of well-drawn suspects keeps the mystery thrumming. While the characterization is strong, Dunn’s mastery of “a singular conjunction of skills”—he’s expert in everything from Hopkins’s poetry and the Arabic language to electrical wiring and martial arts— strains believability. The sonnet itself appears only as a hard-to-read handwritten facsimile, making it difficult to follow the line-by-line academic parsing of its meaning. Still, Dark Sonnet is an entertaining ride in the vein of the best historical conspiracy puzzle-thrillers, and its smart characters even playfully acknowledge the assumptions of the genre, when one wonders aloud why the poet resorted to an elaborate ruse when dying and desperate to convey a secret: “Couldn’t Hopkins have sent a letter to some trusted soul”? Fans of such mysteries will be glad he didn’t.

Takeaway: This Oxford-set puzzle thriller explores secret societies and prejudices past and present.

Great for fans of: Liam Fialkov’s The Newton Code, Matthew Pearl.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A