Books: Hypewatch

The Authors: Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, a pair of disgruntled dons with New Age tastes who re-invented themselves as the dynamic duo of mass-market mystic history.

The Book: The Elixir and the Stone (Viking, pounds 16.99). After their smash debut (The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail) and a clutch of follow-ups, B & L "uncover" another secret strand running from Plato to NATO. This time it's Hermetic sorcery, "the tradition of magic and alchemy" that fuels our culture from Alexandria to Altamont. So they say.

The Deal: The early Nineties saw an occult-history boom ignited by B & L themselves, with extra sparks from Graham (Fingerprints of the Gods) Hancock. Blanket coverage from the mid-market tabloids persuaded publishers that they need only stick a runic symbol on the cover of some fanciful Theory of Everything and they'd soon be laughing all the way to the pyramid. Vast sales of late for the deeply loopy Bible Code show why the book trade loves to bankroll this hogwash.

The Goods: The weirdest thing about B & L is that they have gone (relatively) straight. The pair try to trace an underground stream of Hermetic magic from ancient Memphis (the cult of Thoth) to modern Memphis (the cult of Elvis). But, cannily, they don't need to sign up with the gold-brewing and spirit-conjuring brigade; only to argue that nearly everyone from Dante to Hendrix did. Their promising "Faust" theme - of science as the "ungrateful child" of magic - crumbles into mere random jottings on Hermetic survivals.

The Verdict: You can trust in Baigent and Leigh's sanity, but not in their - slapdash and scatter-gun - scholarship. Paradoxically, their lack of glinty-eyed mania makes this book less fun than works from the outright fruitcakes who really think spacemen built the Sphinx or the Templars offed Kennedy.

The Alternative: Secret histories

1 Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition: B & L's best sections draw on her great studies of Renaissance magic.

2 Frank McLynn, Jung: Searching, balanced life of the sage who set the New Age agenda.

3 Greil Marcus Mystery Train or Lipstick Traces: Offbeat but entrancing bids to write the esoteric history of pop and rock music.

4 Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum: His sparkling satire-thriller has the last, hilarious word on fringe cults and conspiracy-hunters.

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