Love’s Alchemy: A John Donne Mystery

Written by Bryan Crockett
Review by Sue Asher

It’s fashionable now to take popular writers from the past and turn them into sleuths. I was intrigued by this debut novel that centers on John Donne, the famous English metaphysical poet. Donne? What kind of mystery would he be called upon to solve?

As it turns out, this is no mere whodunit. In 1604, Donne is already married to Anne More and suffering the poverty and fall from grace that marrying for love was bound to cause. His political career is in ruins, so to survive he needs to find patronage for his poetry. Unfortunately, the patroness he attracts is a beautiful and manipulative woman who tempts him to stray. He has another option, one he literally can’t refuse: to turn spy for King James’ chief counselor, Robert Cecil. Cecil is rabidly anti-Catholic and has heard rumors of a Catholic plot against the government. Donne, although currently divorced from the Church, has Catholic connections going way back. If he can convince his family he wants to return to the fold, he should be able to uncover the plot—so believes Cecil.

The mystery is this: is there a plot? Who is behind it? This provides for a tension-filled mission for Donne. But the deeper mystery driving the book is: who is John Donne? As he embarks on the journey, he wrestles with his qualms about betraying those who trust him, his separation from the Church, his love for his wife and his lust for his new patroness. This is a remarkably intense and emotional portrayal of the poet that makes him believably brilliant and flawed. It is a wonderful blending of history and fictionalized biography. Highly recommended!