Martin Amis once disparaged what he called the 'comfort' of writing historical fiction, in that the story, the essential facts, were already laid out and required ony diligent research to bring them to life, implying that the interpretation of the here and now was a far more rigorous task for a contemporary novelist. In Peter Ackroyd's historical novels, the research, although always more than diligent, lies so easily on the surface of the book that it can appear like simple observation, even though it must take a great imaginative effort to recreate the past in such vivid colours.
With Ackroyd though, his historical fiction is not written out of some romantic association with the past, but out of an attempt to define the thesis that runs right through his work as a whole, from the novels to the biographies, and to the monumental histories of London and the English imagination. For Ackroyd, the past is not another country, open to tourists and dilettantes, but a visible spectrum that feeds into the here and now and surrounds us at every turn.
His concern is with the urban past, specifically (almost exclusively) London's, and with the lives of those writers and artists he terms 'Cockney visionaries' who have been inspired and revolted in equal measure by the capital. Blake, Dickens, Turner, Chaucer, are all subjects of his unique mode of biography, which seeks to imaginatively inhabit their subject as much as explore the bare facts of a lived life. Famously, in his biography of Dickens, he steps into the narrative at points and indulges in imagined conversations with his subject on the London Underground. In Ackroyd's work, even in a more academic form like the biography, an attempt to communicate with the past is perfectly acceptable, and to have the past talk back is almost expected.
In his historical novels, specifically Hawksmoor and The House of Doctor Dee, Ackroyd tends to split the narrative between the modern day and the distant past, following separate stories that nevertheless intersect at crucial points, each narrative feeding into the other. In Hawksmoor, we follow the story of Nicholas Dyer, apprentice to Christopher Wren, as he begins to design and construct several new churches in the aftermath of the Great Fire, building them to his own occult specifications. In the present day, police detective Nicholas Hawksmoor investigates a series of ritual killings, where the victims have been found at the site of these same churches. It is either the confluence of the churches or the general pattern of coincidence and synchronicity that London throws up around itself that have been responsible for the murders, but in a sense it doesn't matter. The crimes are never solved; Ackroyd's intention is not to write a mystery story, but to show the dark patterns that run under the surface of the city, and the ways in which permanence and change affect the people who live in it. Sometimes the two timelines cross over, as when Hawksmoor is drawn to Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, and during a thunderstorm hears echoes of an argument between Dyer and a colleague making the same trip 250 years in the past.