In The Ancient Nine, Dr. Ian Smith, author of many books on diet and health, tries his hand at crafting a mystery rooted in historical fact. Spencer Collins, our fictive hero, is a Harvard freshman, a young black man from the south side of Chicago studying to become a doctor. He is surprised to be “punched” by The Delphic, one of the elite private clubs infamous among the Ivy League for their preservation of privilege. Presidents and other global leaders have been “Gasmen”, so election to the club is not only flattering but possibly life-changing.

Complicating the matter, his best friend Dalton Winthrop draws him into a mystery about the Delphic, the disappearance of a student some sixty years earlier and the possible existence of a secret room in the club building and a secret club within the club called the Ancient Nine. Much of the story is about Dalton and Spencer following the trail of clues in books and archive to find their way to the truth.

The Ancient Nine is ambitious and seeks to expose several historical conspiracies in one book, not just those of the infamous final clubs, but the secrets of Christendom, the American business titans who financed Hitler, and the lost art of the War. That’s a lot for one book, but there’s more, there’s the mystery of the student who disappeared and how he died, the people who died soon after, and even a mystery Spencer did not know he was discovering, the reason he was invited to join the Deliphic Club in the first place. This is all a bit much for one book, especially when much of the revelation is in one fell swoop in one of those end of the book monologues, though at least not by a Snidely Whiplash character while Spencer draws nearer a buzzsaw on a conveyer.

There are moments of true menace and a very menacing lawyer which would suggest some final confrontation, but whatever confrontation and resolution there might have been, we won’t see it. We’ll just look back on it from decades later which is completely unsatisfying. I would have preferred an up-in-the-air resolution to one that doesn’t happen, leaving us with results without confrontation. I felt shortchanged at the end, and that is weird because other than the end, the entirety of the book is overladen with detail, completely unnecessary detail such as the complete bibliographic entry for a mysterious book, including the shelfmarks at every library it exists or long passages in Old English which used the long s. I laughed out loud at the bibliographic entry, sometimes too much detail is too much detail.

The Ancient Nine is full of too much detail, pages on the Harvard-Yale game tradition and the play by play of some basketball game, and rituals and parties of the Club. This book should have been two-thirds as long and edited much more ruthlessly. That would give us room for what it needs more than anything – a confrontation with those who had secrets to bury. We know the confrontation happened, but only through decades in hindsight. We needed to see it for ourselves.

This has the potential to be a much more exciting book and I can imagine Ian Smith writing one, perhaps one on a topic he knows less intimately. That “write what you know” adage should be taken to the woodshed, I think. To me, it should mean write what you know in terms of emotion, of understanding, of human experience, not necessarily the rituals of final clubs and the gross vulgarisms of men showing off to men. I think when people write what they know from personal experience, they lose the forest while describing the trees.

I received a copy of The Ancient Nine from the publisher through NetGalley

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