It’s a Mystery: “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed”

The Ancient Nine
By Ian Smith
St. Martin’s, 2018

It's a Mystery Irma Heldman.jpg
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The academic world, also known as the groves of academe, has long served as a highly fruitful and satisfying source for mysteries. Furthermore, many of the world’s most prestigious places  of higher learning have select clubs whose raison d’être is ripe thriller territory. Until now, these exclusive societies have been largely untapped. Ian Smith’s riveting The Ancient Nine goes inside this world.

The book begins in 1988 and is narrated by Spenser Collins, a black kid from Chicago’s South Side and a sophomore at Harvard who, to his utter surprise, is “punched”—invited to be considered for membership—in the Delphic Club. It is one of the oldest and most exclusive of the university’s final clubs. (So named because they were once the last organizations students were likely to join before they graduated). First step, a party on Friday night at a place called Lily Field Mansion. Spenser immediately calls his best friend Dalton Winthrop, who is incredulous and divulges that the Delphic is also one of the most secretive of Harvard’s nine exclusive clubs. It has some of the world’s most prominent men as members.

Dalton, fifth-generation Harvard and heir to a vast fortune, has flatly refused to participate in any of the clubs just to enrage the domineering father he despises. But, as he explains to Spenser, the Delphic invite may open a door to an inner sanctum secret that Dalton yearns to have revealed:

This is all a long shot, but if things go well for you on Friday night, you might make it to the next round. I’m getting way ahead of myself—but one round at a time and you might be the way we crack the Ancient Nine…an ultra-secret society of nine members of the Delphic.

Rumor had it that there are nine special graduate members who guard what people have called Harvard’s Holy Grail. It’s an elusive, lost treasure that lots of people, according to Dalton, are convinced is hidden somewhere inside the Delphic Club’s mansion. But to this day, no one has been able to prove that the nine or the grail exists. Adding to the intrigue, Dalton thinks his Uncle Randolph is one of the nine—something the man has never admitted. Now Randolph is gravely ill. When Dalton and Spenser are summoned to his deathbed, he steers them to a secret he doesn’t want to take to his grave. He also takes Spenser aside and warns him that he could be in serious danger without revealing why.

At this point the proverbial wild horses won’t keep Spenser from investigating, even though the path to the truth is paved with peril. He begins with Erasmus Abbott, who vanished in 1927 after attempting to break into the Delphic Club. What are the facts behind his disappearance? What is the significance of two missing pages from one of Harvard’s most important bequests, the first edition (1604) of The Christian Warfare by John Downame? How does it all connect to King James I, whose name was associated with the world-renowned translation of the Bible?

Inner sanctums, lost masterpieces, handwritten words of passion from a powerful monarch, the hidden political affiliations during World War II of many titans of industry, a shocking revelation about Spenser’s ancestry—it all adds up to a powerful, completely absorbing thriller. The Ancient Nine is a rare, unforgettable read!

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.