Monday, 30 April 2012

Penguin no. 1880: A Touch of Stage Fright
by Jocelyn Davey

'Ambrose you have no idea. Every week - every day - thousands of reports come in from everywhere - long, beautiful accurate reports, with every detail of what's going on at every minute in every city of the world. If you could stop and freeze it at a given second, you'd have the truth - the whole of knowledge. But that's the snag: it never stops: it just keeps rolling along: so nobody can take it in. It's too vast. So the editors just pick out pieces here and there like the Irish Sweepstake. Somebody's happy: they've got into Now, or Who. I suppose it's not a bad formula for happiness, really. And when you know what to look for, it can work.'

Ambrose Usher is an appealing academic sleuth. He is an Oxford don who specializes in English Literature, while working on the side for the Foreign Office, primarily keeping an eye on the French and their international intentions. And although it is never elucidated, he is also apparently well known as someone with a facility for solving crimes. Though loquacious, he is also vivacious, enthusiastic, intelligent, witty, and thoughtful. I wanted to enjoy this book simply on account of this one charming character.

And yet there is a problem with A Touch of Stage Fright and it lies in the author's unconstrained enthusiasm for referring to other writers and their works. There are chapters in the book in which there seems barely a paragraph without a reference to a line written by Shakespeare, or Goethe, or some other literary figure. It is clear that Chaim Raphael, who wrote mystery fiction under the pseudonym Jocelyn Davey and who had himself been an Oxford don, was knowledgeable on a wide range of topics and was an enthusiastic imparter of his knowledge, particularly his extensive literary knowledge, but I wish he had been able to contain this passion, for the story verges on tedious as you wade through a numbing surfeit of quotations, literary references, and other ancillary details. It becomes difficult to concentrate on the narrative being obscured by this cloud of facts and allusions.

The story begins with Ambrose heading out from New York on a ferry bound for Lighthouse Island, looking forward to a long weekend at the summer home of Bingo Kootz, formerly a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and now a Professor at Columbia University and the father of five precocious sons, each named for a renowned explorer or geographer. The Island is also home to a colony of actors and playwrights, and Ambrose has vague intentions of investigating his French rivals' recently awakened interest in the theatre and the possibility that it masks some more sinister plan. But he has chosen an opportune weekend for his visit: on his first evening the nearby home of Jason Forsyte is blown apart by dynamite, either inadvertently or intentionally killing the owner as he sleeps. Forsyte had been a theatre critic turned successful impresario, beloved of no one other than his adopted daughter; the island was filled with those he had crossed or mocked, or who resented his success and coveted his wealth.

Ambrose adopts a scholar's approach to crime solving. He reads, he listens, and he contemplates, looking for unexpected linkages between what he knows and what he learns. The one thing he doesn't do is actively seek out any information, except for that which can be found in books; in all other cases the facts must find their way to him. And yet you have to wonder, outside of literature, just how practical an approach this would be. Just why would the clue to a murder be found in a Restoration comedy simply because various people on the island share the characters' names, and is the motive actually likely to be revealed in a playwright's decision to reprise a play from Ancient Greece? It all seems so illogical and unlikely.

And in the end does this sleuthing achieve anything other than providing a focus for the story? Ambrose solves the crime, but simultaneously and independently, the killer reveals his own identity and the motive becomes clear. In practical terms, Ambrose's visit to the island seems to achieve nothing.

It could have been much better, for aside from the frequent quoting, the implausible ending, and the pointlessness of the sleuthing, there are many well-written passages, some interesting ideas, and an appealing protagonist. But in the end it felt as if the quotations and allusions had taken over, and as though they may have even provided the author's starting point, with the rest of the story largely sketched in around them.


  1. I like the sound of this book. A charming main character makes up for a lot of deficiencies for me.

  2. It does sound is amazing and, I think, rather sad, that so many of these authors published by Penguin in the early days of the company, seem to have been forgotten, although they must once have been popular, or new and exciting.

  3. I agree, and it is the reason I choose to read these books, to try to find out for myself at least just what is being forgotten. Of course it is an observation that applies much more widely than Penguin authors, and it is a process you unfortunately get to watch as you age, and the books, films, writers, actors that you loved when young are unheard of by the next generation, and you know what they are missing.

  4. Ooooh, I have a problem with the allusions thing. I usually spend way too much time stopping to investigate a literary allusion I don't know or remember so it would probably take me forever to read this book!

  5. Sounds interesting Karyn despite its flaws. I will look out for it. Thanks for the Skoob Books recommendation. I picked up a few books I didn't have when I went last week. I didn't have time to get chatting and look in their basement but will return very soon.

  6. I am not surprised that you enjoyed the Ambrose Usher character, since he was modelled on Sir Isiah Berlin, one of the most entertaining conversationalists ever ...



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