A clever (perhaps too clever for its own good), twisty (ditto) post-Cold War thriller by the late, great John Ford. I think this is his only non-sff novel, though it is arguably alternate history and possibly sf of the techno-thriller variety.

It juggles a lot of complex puzzle pieces, action set-pieces, and short, sharp character sketches into a whirlwind of a story concerning double agents, a newly discovered play which may be by Christopher Marlowe or may be a clever hoax, secret codes, war games, theatre, academia, the complications of love, spies in Elizabethan times, spies in Cold War times, and spies in the 1980s.

I had read this before, and recalled enjoying it but not having a clue what was going on, and I forgot the plot immediately upon finishing it. I finished my re-read fifteen minutes ago; I enjoyed it, but I still don't understand much of what happened or why. I can follow the general outlines of people running around, shooting at and betraying each other, and unraveling complex codes and schemes, but neither the details of how they're doing it or the overall reasons why, let alone who's really on which side.

Ford was undoubtedly much smarter than me (I am pretty sure he was much smarter than nearly everyone) and I don't expect to understand all the details and allusions and subtext, or even a lot of the plot, the first time I read any of his books. He tends to leave out a lot of stuff that other writers would put in, necessitating that the readers infer from the signposts he left, in lieu of an actual trail.

But this book depends more on plot than most of his; the characters exist to serve the plot rather than the other way around. It's set up as a mystery, but I didn't understand about two-thirds of the solution.

It's well-written but too subtle to quite work as a mystery/thriller. On the other hand, without Ford's usual depth of character and allusion, it feels a bit lightweight. It's definitely worth reading if you're a Ford completist, and is way more easily obtainable than it used to be, with cheap used paperback copies on Amazon. But it's a distinctly minor work.

Just a few of the many things I didn't understand:

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The Scholars of Night

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