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Peter Ackroyd: The House of Doctor Dee

Doctor Dee was a famous 16th Century English alchemist (there are good biographies by Peter French and William Sherman). Ackroyd’s story is set in contemporary London as well as in Dee’s London. Matthew Palmer inherits from his father an old house in London which may have been owned by Dee. Once again, Ackroyd plunges into the mysteries and dark side of London, for we hear not only Palmer’s side but Dee’s. As Palmer plunges into the history of London and, in particular, of his new neighbourhood, his world starts to overlap with Dee’s. It is still biography as in all of Ackroyd’s novels – Dee recounts his autobiography and so does the fictitious Palmer. Gradually, Palmer’s explorations, including archeological explorations in his own house and garden, lead to Dee’s world but he also starts to discover more about his father, who owned the house and who, apparently, was also interested in Doctor Dee. Palmer’s father had also made some interesting discoveries about Dee.

You know where you are with Ackroyd. It is going to be biography, it is going to be the real world colliding with the fictitious world, it is going to be London and more of the dark and gloomy side of London rather than the London the tourist sees and there is going to be some unpleasantness. This book does not disappoint.

Note that if you are interested in Dr. Dee, there is an interesting biography by Peter French and Dee’s diaries have been edited by Edward Fenton. Two other novels about Dr. Dee are Dorothy Dunnett’s The Ringed Castle and Michael Scott Rohan’s Maxie’s Demon.

Publishing history

First published 1993 by Hamish Hamilton