Newton and the Counterfeiter

By THOMAS LEVENSON

Until the ghost of Arthur Conan Doyle provides us with a new adventure concerning Sherlock Holmes and his insidious archnemesis, Professor Moriarty, we shall have to be well content with a new work of nonfiction that exhibits all the same Anglophile-satisfying exoticism, narrative brio, intellectual daring, and personality-rich cast: Thomas Levenson?s excellent Newton and the Counterfeiter. Scrupulously researched, elegantly presented, illuminatingly insightful, and slyly topical, this narrative centers around the lesser-known period in the life of the genius Sir Isaac Newton. In his late 50s, with his major research and discoveries behind him, having suffered a mind-shattering crisis of faith and friendship, Newton secured the job of warden of the Royal Mint. There, he was rapidly forced to deploy all his wits against a horde of counterfeiters, chief of which was one William Chaloner, as wily a rogue as ever clipped shillings. Deftly supplying historical and sociological details as needed, Levenson begins his tale at Newton?s birth, succinctly elaborating the man?s character and accomplishments. A parallel track explores the necessarily less well documented life of Chaloner, a charming, hubristic rogue for whom no small amount of pity and understanding is evoked. On an ineluctable collision course, the two titans of probity and rascality go head-to-head in the latter half of the book, cat-and-mousing it to produce all the suspense of any mystery novel. Levenson has chosen an era and set of incidents that carry much relevance to contemporary headlines. Fiscal scams, political intrigues, scientific advances and their cultural impact, wars and shortages, the role of the ?new? media (cheap printing), the torture of dissidents — all these issues and more, so central to Restoration citizens, still carry immense and significant freight for modern readers. But such admittedly serious issues take a backseat to the thrill of watching Isaac Newton in Sherlockian disguise, meeting informers in a sleazy tavern!