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Crime challenges scientist

'Dark Matter';The Private Life of Sir Isaac Newton: A Novel. Philip Kerr; Crown: 346 pp., $24

February 21, 2003|Anthony Day | Special to The Times

"DARK Matter" is based upon the intriguing proposition that a skilled atmospheric writer can by means of a crime thriller convey us authentically back into the interwoven world of science, religion and politics in England at that pivotal hinge when the 17th century opened into the 18th.

That the attempt succeeds at all is due to the finesse of the author, Philip Kerr. He has done this sort of thing before, most notably in the three novels that compose his "Berlin Noir" trilogy: "March Violets," "The Pale Criminal" and "A German Requiem." But the Berlin of 50 or more years ago is nearer in time and closer in sensibility to the contemporary world than the London which Sir Isaac Newton inhabited. Even as he laid the foundations of modern science, the conditions of his life were greatly different from our own.

In his lifetime men were not uncommonly hanged, and drawn and quartered for crimes; women were burned at the stake; alchemy, in which Newton himself took great interest, was widely believed in; and profound religious convictions that only one belief was the true creed induced men to inflict on other men unspeakable tortures and excruciating death.

To introduce us to this (not entirely) vanished world, Kerr takes us to the dark world of the Tower of London, where stood the Royal Mint, over which in 1696 Newton was made warden, and later master, to stamp out the counterfeiters who were making a hash of the government's attempt to standardize the coinage. He was chief of the mint until his death in 1728, and, Kerr tells us, became through his investigative powers of mind and a large ring of informers a mighty scourge of criminals, many of whom he sent to the gallows.

In "Dark Matter" Newton is portrayed in a plausible manner as an austere man to whom the working of his piercing intelligence was his daily preoccupation. His great published works are behind him; he now turns his immensely absorptive mind to the solving of a series of grisly murders in the damp and bloody old Tower.

Our guide to Newton and his shadowy world is Christopher Ellis, a historical figure appointed to assist Newton (at a comfortable salary of 60 pounds a year with a house in the Tower grounds), but of whom little else is known. Kerr gives Ellis the sensibility of a contemporary man; his eyes serve as ours to transit the centuries. Ellis is a vigorous swordsman; he is also handy with a brace of pistols.

The other characters in "Dark Matter," mostly crooks, are less fully realized than Newton and his assistant. They are largely caricatures of London grotesques in the manner of Hogarth and, later, Dickens. An exception is Newton's niece, Miss Barton, to whom Kerr attributes a frank and lively taste for sexual adventure. Ellis falls for her, but she ends up as the public mistress of Lord Halifax, secretary of the Treasury.

Fans of cryptography will find a source of entertainment in the elaborate secret code found with the mystery murders, and which Newton undertakes to unravel. Non-fans can take it on faith that the master did it well.

"Dark Matter" is most engaging when it draws the imagination back into the turbulent world of England of three centuries ago when the modern attitude was struggling to free itself from the remnants of the medieval world. It is less so when the plots of the several murders unfold in the creaky way of a contemporary page-turner.

Kerr writes in an author's note that he chose the title for the existence of the vast amounts of "dark matter" in the universe, the discovery of which was made possible by Newton's definition of the modern concept of mass. The phrase seemed most suitable, Kerr says, for his "tenebrous and crepuscular" story. It's a bit of a stretch, but fair enough.

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