While Peter Ackroyd writes in The Clerkenwell Tales about a crucial time in English history, he writes with such passion, scholarship and levity that he could probably make the flattest period of history come alive. In this fascinating account of Henry Bolingbroke's successful attempt to oust Richard II, Ackroyd has taken as his template Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and constructed his tale with 23 accounts of the events from varying perspectives.

While the rise of Bolingbroke occupies the minds and tongues of the London populace, the strange visions and utterings of Sister Clarice of the local priory start to captivate them more. And the - literally - cloak-and-dagger conspiracies of the "chosen ones", the legendary Dominus led by the ruthless Bartholomew Exmewe are the heart of Ackroyd's story.

The three strands, of course, interweave and enmesh. Sister Clarice's predictions around Bolingbroke begin to come eerily true, and Exmewe's cabal welcome the smokescreen that the national events provide for them to carry out their guerrilla war against the church.


And, if you believe Ackroyd, the church could have done with a bit of a tidy-up, as could the government of the autocratic Richard. The upper echelons of government and church are painted here as avaricious, merciless and as riddled with sin, corruption and self-importance as any institution could possibly be.

High-ranking barrister Sir Miles Vavasour enjoys sexual congress with an 11-year-old girl, Exmewe puts his dagger to "good" use more times than would be expected of a pious Augustine friar, and everyone in the 23 tales has some personal agenda they are keen to fulfil. Even, as it turns out, the blessed Sister Clarice.

A number of these figures are historically accurate; the balance come from Chaucer's work itself.

The stench and filth of 14th-century London is Ackroyd's metier. To many he has become London itself, such is the regard in which his treatises on the capital are held.

Bodies go into the lime-pits behind the city walls with wearying frequency, sewers run open, children drowned by their own parents turn up in the Fleet and the Thames, and nuns and priests get together in hidden tunnels for activities completely incongruous with vespers or matins.

And all this activity takes place amid many streets and landmarks which still exist. Ackroyd's "Author's Tale" at the close of the book explains the historical and current context of many of these famous London places.

Brilliant, witty, erudite and a triumphant success because of - rather than in spite of - its construction, this is a joy to indulge in.

Random House, $59.95

* Michael Larsen is an Auckland freelance writer.