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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Dark Matter

Philip Kerr

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To purchase Dark Matter

Title: Dark Matter
Author: Philip Kerr
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002
Length: 345 pages
Availability: Dark Matter - US
Dark Matter - UK
Dark Matter - Canada
Le chiffre de l'alchimiste - France
Newtons Schatten - Deutschland
  • The Private Life of Sir Isaac Newton

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Our Assessment:

B : decent historical fiction, but not completely engaging

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times B 21/2/2003 Anthony Day
San Francisco Chronicle A 27/10/2002 Tom Nolan

  From the Reviews:
  • "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." - Anthony Day, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(E)xciting and cleverly written (.....) Kerr (...) excels at bringing the past to vivid life through colorful settings (including the Tower of London), archaic yet fresh-sounding slang and a mixture of the earthy realities of Newton's England with the elevated speculations of a brilliant sleuth as eager to solve the mysteries of the universe as to sort out the violent deeds of a few knaves." - Tom Nolan, San Francisco Chronicle

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Dark Matter is sub-titled: The Private Life of Sir Isaac Newton. Newton was a brilliant but odd fellow, and there's little enough known about his varied public life; a novel focussing on the private affairs of the man sounds like it might be good fun. Told by Christopher Ellis, who worked as an assistant to Newton at the Royal Mint (where Newton was Warden at the time most of this story takes place), Dark Matter unfortunately doesn't bother much with Newton's private life: the man remains a cipher, and the focus is on professional achievements -- and murder.
       Dark Matter is, in fact, a Sherlock Holmes story. True, it is set for the most part in the late 1690s, and the Sherlock Holmes character here goes by the name of "Isaac Newton", but that's what it is. The first meeting between Newton and Ellis is straight out of Sherlock Holmes ("you're better with the pistol" than a carbine, Newton warrants (among many other things), based on his keen sense of observation and deduction). Sidekick Ellis is, at least, very different in character from Dr.Watson, but he serves almost exactly the same purpose (though his facility with weapons and hot temper make for a bit more excitement).
       The Royal Mint is not doing so well when the story opens in 1696. War with France is costing a great deal, the Recoinage isn't going well, and counterfeiters compound the problems. All that is historical fact -- as is Newton's firm approach in dealing with all these matters. (He was very, very good at his job.)
       Unfortunately, this wasn't enough excitement for Kerr, and so he tosses in a few murders. Ellis' predecessor, for one, met such a sad end -- and others follow.
       Much of the action is set in the Tower of London, where rivalries between the Mint and other tenants further complicate Newton's attempts to deal with all these various crimes. But the rest of London is explored too, and Kerr does a nice job of suggesting city-life in those times -- dangerous, dirty, often depraved. The characters -- the sly criminals, the ruffians, the buffoons, and those in power -- are also, for the most part, decently done, and Kerr does manage Newton's clever answers very well.
       So: there are murders. Similar but not identical. Newton investigates, and of course solves them -- though not all at once. Along the way there are also baffling notes in code, where the true secrets must lie ... but it's a while before Newton can solve these.
       There are also political plots and other historical characters (including Daniel Defoe, Samuel Pepys). And Ellis even has a dalliance with Newton's niece, Miss Barton (Newton, it is suggested, wasn't much for dalliances himself). And there are a few fights, some executions, alchemy, and some peculiar sexual practises. As well as some Newtonian wisdom (as Kerr -- fairly cleverly -- ties in many of Newton's other thoughts, theories, and pre-occupations into the story). It sounds like there's enough here for a novel, and yet, all told, it barely adds up to that.
       This is a rare book where one actually welcomes the scenes of essentially entirely gratuitous sex ("I had no courage to meddle with her, for fear of her not being wholesome, until she sold me a length of sheep's intestine with which I could sheath my many parts"). They, like a few of the other scenes -- when criminals are confronted or a piece of the puzzle has been solved --, are at least alive (in some way), and one feels something is actually going on. Most of the murdering isn't near as entertaining -- indeed, some of it is downright dull.
       There aren't many contemporary crime fiction novels starring the money-men for the Treasury Department (or Ministry) -- understandable, since it's hard to make them sound interesting. Newton, one would think, offers a real character to start with (and the Royal Mint, ca. 1700, might very well have been more exciting than modern-day Treasuries) -- but perhaps part of the problem also lies there: it's hard to turn the genius Newton (about whose private life so little is known) into a convincing character. Kerr manages little more than turning him into Sherlock Holmes.
       Some of the pseudo-olde-fashioned English also grates, but for the most part Dark Matter reads easily and well enough. There's too little excitement -- intellectual or otherwise -- and the way the crimes are wrapped up isn't entirely satisfactory either. It's a decent read, with a few worthwhile bits, but ultimately somewhat disappointing.

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Dark Matter: Reviews: Philip Kerr: Other books by Philip Kerr under review: Other books under review that might be of interest:

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About the Author:

       Prolific British author Philip Kerr (1956-2018) is best known for his Bernie Gunther-series.

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