THE SCHOLARS OF NIGHT Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Matthew Kresal rediscovers a Cold War classic.
To say the Cold War was a golden age for spy fiction would be an understatement. Writers as wide-ranging as John le Carre, Len Deighton, and Tom Clancy launched careers and explored the decades-long conflict between East and West. When the front lines were invisible, the troops were the spies of both sides, and where science and technology, as well as historical grievances, all had a role to play. Few managed to bring together those strands as strongly as the late John M. Ford, who made his sole contribution to the genre with this 1988 thriller, now back in print after more than three decades.

In some ways, The Scholars of Night feels like Ford's attempt to pastiche much of the Cold War spy genre. His lead character, Professor Nicholas Hansard, is an American based out of a US university and working for a think tank. Much of the action takes place in the UK, where both a spy ring after a defense system and a seemingly lost play by Christopher Marlowe are all in the field with secrets, lies, and betrayal surrounding them. As that description might suggest, there are shades of everything from the more reality-based end of the genre represented by le Carre to the technothrillers of Clancy and his many imitators. What Ford pastiches the most, however, are writers such as Anthony Price and Duncan Kyle, working in a strong historical element into the narrative in the form of the Marlowe play and the birth of British intelligence in the Elizabethan era.

Yet, for all the apparent pastiche writing Ford does, his novel is very much its own beast. Ford effortlessly moves readers and narrative alike through time and space, from the then-present day of the late 1980s to the Elizabethan era. Indeed, sometimes doing so in the matter of paragraphs, moving from Hansard's attempt to authenticate the play manuscript and a burgeoning romance back in time to Marlowe and a host of familiar figures in the 1500s. That he does so while also exploring the backstories of the members of a spy ring and explaining the piece of technology they're after is all the more to Ford's credit as a writer. Yet, for all of its literary bent and sophistication, Ford never lets things get too complex or dense. The Scholars of Night isn't a large book, but a well-paced, if packed, narrative told inside less than 300 pages. It's a balancing act that Ford makes look effortless, making one wish he might have written more thrillers along these lines.

The Scholars of Night is a gem of a thriller. Ford brings together a wide berth of influences, from the late Cold War espionage and technology to British theatre and its history all in one neat, slim, but surprisingly loaded package. Overlooked back then, like so much of Ford's work apparently, perhaps now it will find its moment in the spotlight.

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.

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