Ranging widely through time and space, Dickie assembles a large cast of characters, some well known like Benjamin Franklin and Rudyard Kipling, others more obscure, who contributed to the spread of Freemasonry across the globe. Always careful to describe the varying manifestations of Freemasonry in different contexts – from the revolutionary to the reactionary – Dickie nevertheless offers a general characterization of the phenomenon: “Freemasonry is about death. The noose around the neck, the sword-point at the breast, the skulls, the bones, the tombs, the urns, the coffins”. Through these “Emblems of Mortality”, masons, he argues, stand shoulder to shoulder as Brothers and transform their fear of death: “In Masonry, death is a man thing”.
The story of freemasonry is not all fraternal handshakes and matey slaps on the back, of course. Secrecy may be seductive, but it can also provoke wild speculation of a kind that didn’t end with the Portuguese Inquisition. Amid the violent upheavals of the French Revolution, the displaced Catholic priest Augustin Barruel could be heard denouncing revolutionary events as the consequence of a mischievous plot hatched by the brotherhood. Barruel provided little evidence for his claims, largely because there was none. But he did offer in his spectacularly successful book on the subject a template of supposed masonic machinations that has been recycled ever since. Dickie devotes some of his best chapters to this dark history of suspicion and persecution, with freemasons serving as scapegoats for Mussolini, Hitler and Franco, among many others. And today, freemasonry is banned everywhere in the Muslim world except Lebanon and Morocco.
Best known for Cosa Nostra, his definitive account of the Sicilian mafia, he takes on this sensational subject with a wry turn of phrase and the cool judgment of a fine historian... Despite being a Cowan, as masons call non-members, I enjoyed this book enormously. Dickie’s gaze is both wide and penetrating; he is just as good on black American Freemasons, whose ranks include the basketball star Shaquille O’Neal, as he is on the intricacies of French or Italian masonry. He makes a persuasive case for masonry’s historic importance, from its Enlightenment origins to its influence on the mafia, Mormonism and the Ku Klux Klan, all of which copied its rituals. He treats the conspiracy theories about masonic influence in the British police with commendably withering scorn, lamenting that “such stories regularly make it past the bullshit detectors of reputable newspapers”. And, most refreshingly, he makes masonry sound like an entirely sane, reasonable way to spend your time.
The Craft is a superb book that often reads like an adventure novel. It’s informative, fascinating and often very funny. Dickie, a professor of Italian studies at University College London, recounts the history of freemasonry by breaking it down into beautifully written stories rooted in places crucial to the organisation. The depth of research is awe-inspiring, but what really makes this book is the author’s visceral understanding of what constitutes a good story. My only complaint rests with the unfortunate subtitle, How the Freemasons Made the Modern World.