Best known for his mighty volumes on London, and biographies of Sir Thomas More, William Blake and Charles Dickens, Peter Ackroyd was once far better known as a novelist. Hawksmoor, published in 1985, was a literary sensation; Chatterton was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1987. As with these two, inspired by Sir Christopher Wren’s eponymous assistant and a proto-Romantic poet respectively, his novels tended to jump off from a specific literary or historic moment; he channelled Oscar Wilde, Milton, Chaucer, and John Dee in works which showed off his sublime talent for literary pastiche.
Three Brothers, his return to fiction, turns to the more recent past. In Camden Town in the mid-20th century, three brothers are born each on the same day a year apart. Their mother vanishes, their father is negligible, and like fairy-tale siblings, they must each find their fortune. Harry becomes a journalist, Daniel an academic, Sam an unworldly odd-job man.
The opening pages are written in a flat, declarative style, without flourishes. “Harry Hanway left school at the age of 16, and was already eager to join the world. He was active, determined and energetic. At school he had won popularity for his cheerfulness and bravado. He had become captain of the football team.”
The story soon evolves without necessarily becoming much richer in verbal texture. Sam sees visions of London past and the plot starts to hint at one of Ackroyd’s favourite themes: that London is so steeped in past events that they intrude on and affect the present.
The three brothers lose contact, but their shared blood sends out invisible strings of influence. Linking them is Asher Ruppta, a Rachman-like slum landlord. Also woven through the story in complicated ways is a thief and rentboy, Sparkler, a Dickensian “mutual friend”. And the underworld villain, the Jackdaw, could be the Artful Dodger grown up.
Ackroyd is less interested in the female characters. Guinevere, Harry’s wife, is so faint as to be hardly there, and his mother-in-law, Lady Flaxman, while given amusing dialogue, is flimsily motivated and presented with a shiver of physical disgust “in a low cut red silk dress revealing the beginnings of the darkness between her scrawny breasts”.
Not that the male characters are more sympathetically drawn; a scene in a gay dive (homosexuality was still illegal at the time) is riotously smutty and funny, but no one there is admirable or likeable. Daniel enters the literary world (Ackroyd himself was a literary editor of The Spectator) and encounters sharp-elbowed hacks and disgruntled, egotistic poets. This London is festering, not swinging.
There’s a lovely moment when Sparkler suddenly pauses by a grating in Farringdon and hears running water. “Sewer probably.” Avid Ackroydians will grasp that this is the famous Fleet, one of London’s lost rivers. There are numerous such allusions. Whether the wavering, crime-tinged plot can quite support them is another matter.