Ackroyd's 15th novel and 54th published book is a family saga that develops into a murder mystery, but human relations and plot twists have never much interested the author, who has won major awards for biographies of TS Eliot and Thomas More. At heart, it's a creepy, melancholy love letter to London and the layers of history that haunt it, breaking into the present as hallucinations and spectres.
Three brothers are born into a working-class neighbourhood in 1950s Camden: ebullient journalist Harry, bookish academic Daniel, and aimless, antisocial Sam, who has mystical visions. Abandoned by their mother as children, they drift apart as adults, and although their paths cross in unlikely, perhaps preordained ways, each is stuck in his own fog of loneliness. For Sam: "The days passed, one like another… If nothing mattered, then he could exist like this."
Ackroyd picks out vibrant details: Sam's face "seemed to flinch" without glasses; the terraced street of the brothers' childhood smells of bonfires, petrol, dust and rain. He steers his characters through Fleet Street offices and Limehouse slums, and bumps them against expertly drawn literati, pickpockets, prostitutes and politicians.
None of this is new terrain for Ackroyd, who has already written a stack of imaginative nonfiction books about London, and Three Brothers doesn't have the energy and inventiveness of earlier novels like Hawksmoor. Ackroyd recently said that he works on history in the mornings, biography in the afternoons and fiction at night, and while this book is suffused with his intelligence and learning, it's comfortably within his capabilities.