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Dark Matter: The Private Life of Sir Isaac Newton Hardcover – October 1, 2002

3.8 out of 5 stars 56 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Holmes and Watson provide the template for this very satisfying historical thriller from Kerr (The Grid, etc.), with Sir Isaac Newton acting as great detective and one Christopher Ellis serving as narrator. It's 1696, and a series of murders are plaguing the Tower of London, where the middle-aged Newton has recently assumed (as in real life) the position of warden of the royal mint, with the younger Ellis (again as in real life) serving as his assistant. Like Holmes, the cold and cerebral Newton relies on rationalism the scientific method to solve the crimes, while Ellis, quick with sword, pistol and temper, brings the emotional counterweight provided by Conan Doyle's Watson. The murders are accompanied by esoteric clues, most notably encrypted messages and alchemical references, that spur Newton to their resolution as forcefully as does his intense sense of duty, for the killings seem to involve not only a plot to disrupt a recoinage necessary to continue England's war with France, but also a conspiracy to commit religious genocide against a backdrop of incessant tensions between Catholics and Protestants. The mystery elements of the novel provide a sturdy spine for the book's main flesh: its robust recreation of life at the end of the 17th century. Ellis's fluid narration sets the tone, illuminating a London beset by pestilence, poverty, whores and ruffians, noblemen grave or foppish, opium dens, brothels and grisly executions, and a bright array of historical figures including, in the role of blackguard, Daniel Defoe. There's an erotic/romantic subplot involving Ellis and Newton's niece, but the main focus is on the two leads. Both are well drawn, though Newton, ostensibly the novel's center, is less compelling than Ellis's full-blooded youth. That disparity, and an overly complex plot, are the drawbacks of what is, withal, a most gripping and well-appointed entertainment.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

There have been many mysteries featuring famous historical figures as protagonists, among them Elliot Roosevelt's crime-solving First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Stephanie Barron's investigative Jane Austen, and Karen Harper's sleuthing Queen Elizabeth I. Now comes Sir Isaac Newton and his assistant, Christopher Ellis (also an actual person). It is 1696 in London, and Ellis has been hired to help Newton in his job as Warden of the Royal Mint. Ordered by the king to find and prosecute counterfeiters whose false coins threaten the war-shaken British economy, the two men get more than they bargained for when they uncover a much more dangerous conspiracy. Plot devices such as secret coded documents, the pseudoscience of alchemy, and a string of strange murders make for an exciting read. Using as backdrop the Tower of London, the Royal Mint, Bedlam madhouse, and Newgate Prison, the ever-versatile Kerr, author of sophisticated science-based thrillers like The Second Angel and Esau, weaves a rich tapestry of interesting characters and period details. Highly recommended. Fred Gervat, Concordia Coll. Lib., Bronxville, NY
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; 1st edition (October 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0609609815
  • ISBN-13: 978-0609609811
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (56 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,196,969 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on October 1, 2002
Format: Hardcover
History, rather than the future seems to be where Kerr feels at his most comfortable and demonstrates himself a cut above most thriller and mystery writers. I wasn't a big fan of his novel The 2nd Angel. But his Bernie Gunther series of novels, collected as Berlin Noir, are something else again. I can't begin to remember how many people recommended that book to me, and I have never understood why he has never written another. That aside, this book shows Kerr on his best form since Berlin Noir. At once reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes and The Name of the Rose, I enjoyed this novel enormously. It is highly intelligent without being pretentious and extremely readable without ever being predictable. Above all it is informative as well as being entertaining. I am now going to buy a biography of Sir Isaac Newton and find out more about England's greatest scientist. Full marks to Kerr for a really clever idea.
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Format: Hardcover
I've read Richard Westfall's bio of Newton - a real monster - and I thought Kerr got him pretty well right. The point is that Newton was a very hard man to get to know, a real mystery. One of these other reviews grumbles that Kerr's portrait of Newton is less than inaccurate. Which part? Newton not being a heretic? He was. Newton not being an alchemist? He was. Newton not believing in the divinity of Jesus Christ? He didn't. Newton not working at the Royal Mint? He did. Newton caring very little for other people? He didn't. Newton being obsessed with empirical method? He was. If anything I got a better impression of Newton the man, than was to be found in Westfall's bio. Frankly if I had a criticism of this book it is that it seemed a little too accurate, sometimes at the expense of making the hero - Newton - seem rather unheroic. I guess this is what happens when you spend so much time with math. It turns you into a cold fish. The other reviewers got it right. This is a classic mystery novel. Best of all, it's beautifully written and easy to read.
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Format: Paperback
...I liked it. Is it the definitive biography of Newton? Well, no, but if that's what you're looking for, why would you read a novel? It is, I think, a good stab at making a living character of Newton--which is saying something considering the pains Newton took to hide just about every personal detail of his life.

The murder mystery/forensics aspect seems to me just the stage dressing behind the portrayals of the characters. Newton and his spunk-bucket niece Catherine are the most fully delineated, followed by pretty nearly everyone else, followed by the narrator, Christopher Ellis. Ellis is the most one-dimensional character, perhaps because he's the only one Kerr had to create without the springboard of reality. (There was a real Christopher Ellis, but apparently almost nothing is known about him.)

As to the writing itself, Kerr does pretty well at keeping the flavor of seventeenth-century English without making the text impossible to wade through, and throws in a few clever allusions along the way. My only beef is that he uses whole quotes by and about Newton without paraphrasing. That comes across as jolting and stilted; it would have been better had Kerr springboarded off them as well, working them into his own writing style and keeping them fresh.

I know this sounds like a lukewarm review, but I really did like the book! It's not a heavyweight, but it's diverting and entertaining, and besides there's plenty of ponderous stuff about Newton out there. Let your hair down, relax, and enjoy it.
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Format: Hardcover
A mystery which should keep even the most jaded reader intrigued and involved, Dark Matter begins like a typical Sherlock Holmes mystery, with Sir Isaac Newton interviewing Christopher Ellis to work as his assistant as Warden of the Royal Mint, and deducing all manner of personal information from clues he notices on Ellis's person.

But here the similarities end. The murders which Newton and Ellis soon investigate are part of a much broader picture of intrigue than anything in the Sherlock Holmes series, here involving the recoinage of England's silver and gold, battles against smugglers and counterfeiters, the enmity and warfare between England and France, the continuing hatred between Catholics and Protestants in both countries, the missing treasure of the Knights Templar, and alchemy, astronomy, scientific study, and even the ciphers developed a hundred years earlier by Rene Descartes.

Newton remains throughout the novel as a somewhat mysterious character, formal, scholarly, honest, and industrious, but personally remote, even from his niece, with whom he lives. Ellis, on the other hand, quickly engages the reader with his innate charm and physicality--he's an ebullient 20-year-old, "..."

As this surprisingly compatible team investigates several grotesquely staged murders, while battling the political status quo at the Tower of London, where the Mint is located, the reader is taken on a wide-ranging and colorful tour of the city from its royal houses to its bawdy houses, its churches to its opium dens, and its bookshops to its prisons.
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