From his treks in the wake of Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe and Arthur Rimbaud to his recent forays into the hidden lives of Leonardo and Shakespeare, Charles Nicholl has rightly won a reputation as a peerless historical sleuth. At once a biographer, an explorer and an investigator, he captures the past and its people in lightning-flashes of illumination.
Via startling snapshots and vivid discoveries, Nicholl seeks – as the preface to this collection of 25 essays puts it – "the sudden presence, the glimpse behind the curtain, the episode measured in minutes and preserved across the centuries". In his piece on John Aubrey, the supreme 17th-century gossip, he quotes Aubrey's view of the biographer as a "conjuror" who "makes them walk and appear that have lain in their graves many hundreds of years". Nicholl can perform just such sorcery.
Traces Remain contains a few makeweights: routine travel articles or book reviews that don't quite earn their place. But at least a dozen longer excursions add up to a banquet of classic Nicholl quests. In London, he adds a sparkling coda to his terrific Shakespeare book, The Lodger, by hunting down via court records the sideline in the sex trade pursued by Will's Huguenot landlord, Christopher Mountjoy. In Bohemia, he uncovers the sad fate of legendary alchemist Edward Kelley, the infamous sidekick of magical magus John Dee.
Two women of mystery emerge into plain sight from the mists of myth: Beatrice Cenci, who arranged her abusive father's murder in the Abruzzi mountains in 1598; and Sarah Walker, the daughter of William Hazlitt's landlady who drove the great essayist crazy with unrequited love. In every case, Nicholl mines the "precious nugget of raw information" in which the buried past still glints.
The figure of the alchemist recurs. Edward Kelley was one of Europe's most notorious. Ben Jonson, subject of a fine appreciation, unmasked another in his scorching play.
In Nicholl's hands, the driest document can rise from the past and shine. Let's hope for many more scintillating revelations from this magician of lost lives.