Published by Plume
Publication date: April 2013
Annie Kendall’s life has not gone the way she’d hoped it would. In the midst of a stellar academic career as an architectural historian she let a fondness for alcohol get away from her and in doing so lost custody of her young son. By the time she regained her sobriety both her personal life and career were in shambles. It is fortuitous then that billionaire Phil Weinraub asks her to move to London for three months and conduct research for him. Bristol House is the flat where Annie stays and the title of Beverly Swerling’s latest novel. It is a marvelous concoction of mystery, history, and religion combining an architectural historian, a 16th century monk, the Knights Templar, an investigative journalist, and an odd billionaire.
Annie’s assignment seems clear: try and find evidence of a man living in London in the 1500s, known as the Jew of Holburn, who may have been in possession of valuable religious artifacts. Weinraub’s foundation is interested in evidence of the man and the artifacts themselves. Shortly after her arrival she meets Geoff Harris, an investigative reporter who finds her association with Weinraub to be interesting but doubts that her mission is as straightforward as she thinks. He sees non-humanitarian motives behind Weinraub’s actions. As if confusion around her trip isn’t enough, Annie is having her own issues with Bristol House; namely, finding a monk in one of the back bedrooms, chanting. A monk dressed in the robes of the 16th century Carthusian order, who looks startlingly like Harris. After a moment the monk disappears but while she does not see him again, she hears chanting coming from the room and encounters other unexplainable phenomena.
If this sounds like a lot to take in, it is and yet Swerling writes the details of Bristol House with such authority that venturing back to the time of the Tudors or even further, to the days when the Knights Templar rescued the treasures from Solomon’s Temple, is not a difficult task. The novel is written in the alternating viewpoints of Annie, Dom Justin (the monk), and Giacomo the Lombard (the Jew of Holburn) and so gives the perspective of two terrified men living at a time when Henry VIII was killing people for their religious beliefs against the confusion of a recovering alcoholic who doubts her own abilities.
With such a far-reaching and varied plot it would be easy for things to get confusing. Swerling avoids this by keeping Annie’s voice the focus even when she struggles with her past. Although she and Harris fall into a relationship it does not dominate the plot nor does Harris overwhelm Annie in her search for answers. At most, there is a bit of a love story feel towards the end of what is an engrossing historical mystery but it is not enough to distract from the plot. Instead, Bristol House is a riveting thriller in the style of The Historian or The DaVinci Code—taking some of the most curious mysteries from history and turning them into a story both exciting and satisfying.