Review: The Ancient Nine by Ian K. Smith
By Gabino IglesiasSeptember 20, 2018
The Ancient Nine by Ian K. Smith is a suspenseful thriller that takes you deep into the world of Ivy League secret societies.
Ian K. Smith’s The Ancient Nine is a hybrid narrative that brings together action, intrigue, history, longstanding secrets, and the fascinating world of secret societies. However, the element that makes this a recommended read is the main character, an individual that would normally exist on the fringe of all things Harvard. Smith’s writing never strays far from the matter at hand, but he uses his main character to explore race in Ivy League schools, the role wealth plays in the lives of individuals who are born into it, and the lengths people will go to in order to maintain their secrets and keep their privilege intact.
Spenser Collins is not the usual Harvard student. He’s smart, athletic, and focused on his academic career. However, he is also a black kid from the south side of Chicago who grew up without a father and is always broke.
Spenser’s friend Dalton Winthrop is the opposite. Dalton comes from the kind of wealth that ensures a very comfortable life regardless of academic output or work ethic. He comes from a long line of Harvard graduates, and his uncle was a member of one of the university’s most exclusive all-male clubs.
The two men get along fine, but they’re thrown together and forced to become great friends when Spenser is “punched” to join the Delphic Club, one of the most select of Harvard’s famous all-male final clubs. The situation is new to Spenser, but Dalton knows a lot about the Delphic. The club doesn’t offer memberships to most students, has a lot of prestige, and holds a secret society within its walls. Dalton’s own great-uncle is one of their oldest living members—a man who knows about the biggest secrets at the Delphic and the Ancient Nine, a group within the society composed of alums whose identities are unknown and who seem to have unlimited power. They also take care of keeping secrets safe, including the story behind the disappearance of a student who broke into the club in 1927 and was never seen again.
Given all the secrecy, Spenser has many questions, and the deeper he and Dalton go into the inner workings of the club and it’s Ancient Nine, the closer they get to a world of questions, clandestine actions, hidden agendas, and possibly even murder. What follows is a narrative about powerful men and their secrets in which the two friends will have to deal with school, personal matters, and an investigation that eventually threatens their lives.
Despite coming in at a hefty 432 pages, The Ancient Nine is a novel that holds a plethora of secrets and keeps readers glued to the story because every new revelation brings with it an entirely new set of questions. Spenser and Dalton investigate passionately, and the reader is given every piece of information as soon as they get it. Old newspaper articles, secret books, word of mouth, and even information received from renowned scholars are all part of the narrative, and each one is delivered in dialogue or a different font, resulting in a novel that reads like a collection of clues. Also, regardless of the number of facts that are revealed, the mystery at the center of the Delphic remains until the very end, even if it quickly becomes clear that some of the rumors about it are nowhere near the mark:
Jewels from one of the early popes, priceless artwork that’s been missing for centuries, Egyptian mummies in sarcophagi. Lots of stories, but no one has been able to penetrate that damn fortress up on Linden Street to really know. No member has ever gone on record to talk about it and probably never will. At least not in my lifetime.
The narrative’s first big moment comes when Spenser and Dalton find a book they are not supposed to ever see. As soon as they get their hands on it, the severity of the situation they’re involving themselves in starts becoming clear. Before long, there are bad things happening and threats being delivered by menacing men who have no business being on campus. All of this happens while Spenser goes through the consideration process at the Delphic, falls in love, plays basketball, and deals with his tough financial situation.
Dalton and I drove back to Cambridge, debating whether we should read the book or honor Uncle Randolph’s dying words. One minute he would suggest that we pull off at a rest stop and get it over with; then, when I agreed, he’d suddenly get moralistic and change his mind. By the time we had reached the Mass Pike and were seeing signs for Boston, I had an immense headache. I closed my eyes and tried to get some sleep before practice, but I couldn’t stop thinking that the book lying only inches away from me might contain all the answers to our questions about the Ancient Nine, the secret room, and the disappearance of Erasmus Abbott. The temptation was unbearable.
The Ancient Nine goes deep into the hidden world of secret societies at one of the top universities in the world. The representation of the men who make up these societies, as well as that of the folks who usually attend Harvard, is exactly what readers expect: mostly privileged white people who feel entitled to the power, connections, and secure future that is tied to an education and networking at that institution. Furthermore, Smith touches on the issues of race and the misogynist nature of these all-male clubs a few times in the story. While the narrative never becomes preachy, there is enough of that conversation going on to make readers stop and think about the fact that some of the outdated practices at old institutions have refused to adapt to the modern world. Maybe it’s time to force them to do that.
There is one main shortcoming in The Ancient Nine. While it doesn’t hurt the story and the action sequences and mysterious atmosphere are more than enough to overpower it, there is a bit of overwriting. Smith has a tendency to go into tangential subjects and stay there for too long. For example, there are detailed passages about basketball drills. Also, almost every character that makes an appearance is described in detail, mostly about his or her attire. What could have easily been fixed by the editor in the editing process starts to become a bit tedious around the middle of the book. Here’s an example of one of those descriptions:
The blue door to the clubhouse opened, and out walked a kid straight from the pages of an L.L. Bean catalog. He wore a madras blazer and a navy blue Delphic bow tie covered with gold torches. His vintage wool gabardine pants were cuffed half an inch too short with pleats deep enough to hide a roll of quarters. He didn’t wear any socks with his rustic burgundy penny loafers, the heads side of the pennies showing in the slits.
Harvard is shown in this novel as a dark place. There is plenty of college-aged male behavior going on, including drinking, partying, and looking at women on a purely physical level. However, there is also something very interesting at the center of the novel, a mystery that twists and turns and leads two young men to research the lives of some of the richest families in the country and even dig up bodies from graves in the middle of the night. Smith has created a nuanced narrative about a secretive world, and entering it is a gripping, satisfying experience.