Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe
Book Review

'Ghostwalk' is riveting as history, not mystery

Historian and author Rebecca Stott writes about the obsessive quest for knowledge in 'Ghostwalk.' Historian and author Rebecca Stott writes about the obsessive quest for knowledge in "Ghostwalk." (Bruce Robertson)

Ghostwalk, By Rebecca Stott, Spiegel & Grau, 306 pp., $24.95

Set in and around Cambridge, England, Rebecca Stott's "Ghostwalk" begins as a typical academic mystery. Trinity College neuroscientist Cameron Brown comes to visit his mother, Elizabeth Vogelsang, a historian completing a study of Isaac Newton. The ramshackle house, which Elizabeth fondly calls the Studio, is eerily quiet. And indeed something is amiss; Cameron soon finds Elizabeth's body floating in the river nearby.

So we settle in comfortably and wait for a detective to show up and start questioning Elizabeth's family, friends, and neighbors. But instead of the requisite twists, turns, and logical solution, Stott, a science historian affiliated with Cambridge University, gives us speculations into the myriad ways in which sinister events from long ago reverberate in the present. Physics, scholarship, and the supernatural all play prominent roles.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Lydia Brooke, a writer and sometime lover of the married Cameron, who asks her to move into the Studio and finish Elizabeth's book. Excerpts from the manuscript transport us into the world that so captivated Elizabeth, that of 17th century Cambridge, where Isaac Newton experimented with color and light, studied mathematics, and pursued the ancient art of alchemy. The novel portrays alchemy in unfamiliar ways -- not as a deluded attempt to turn metal into gold, but as a wondrous quest to "uncover nature's secrets, her patterns and processes."

Lydia soon finds herself stumbling upon riddle after riddle. Accounts in Elizabeth's records of murders in 1660s Cambridge have parallels to suspicious deaths in the present. Newton's notebooks contain secret codes and cryptic references to a Mr. F. And Lydia experiences visions of a man bearing an uncanny resemblance to Newton. She learns that the sensible Elizabeth had consulted a clairvoyant. Strange, dancing lights give the Studio a menacing feel. Meanwhile, animal-rights activists are threatening Cameron's research lab, his colleagues, and his family.

From "inferences, guesses, half-truths, and shadows," Lydia struggles to extract meaning. Elizabeth, she surmises, was writing a contrarian's view of Newton -- the "English hero of the Enlightenment" -- emphasizing his involvement in alchemy networks and exploring the murky circumstances in which he obtained a fellowship that saved his career. Could these findings have something to do with Elizabeth's death?

For a story featuring apparitions, murders, and adultery, "Ghostwalk" is not a riveting read. It's easy to get lost in the thicket of themes and weird events. And while Stott cleverly links the various plot strands, the novel is finally more memorable for its parts than for its resolution.

But Stott's sensibility as a historian enriches her storytelling at every turn. Passages on Venetian glassmaking, Newton's studies in the midst of the Great Plague, and his practice of alchemy sparkle with fascinating detail. Stott has a keen sense of time and its permutations. Describing a garden, or village, or fairground, she makes us see that setting now and in the remote past.

"Ghostwalk" is, above all, a story of learning and scholarship as consuming passions. Cameron, Lydia notes, was driven in his scientific research by "the head rush of unearthing something no one had put together before, being the first one to see it." The observation applies to all the major characters -- Newton, Elizabeth, Cameron, and Lydia herself, each in the throes of intellectual obsession. The dangers they court in their pursuits underscore the intoxicating allure of knowledge.

Judith Maas is a freelance writer and editor.