Friday, 11 May 2012

Penguin no. 1609: Or be he Dead
by James Byrom

'Pick bits out of anyone's biography and you can build him up to be quite a figure...I like writing about criminals because they're ready-made characters. Just fill in a few human touches, generalize from habits of speech and appearance, add a spot of moral criticism, and you appeal to the potential criminal in all respectable people. They will always pay to find out where "but for the grace of God" they might have landed themselves.'

Raymond Kennington writes essays on historical crimes, revisiting the deeds of criminals and murderers long dead and in no position to challenge his conclusions, or sue him or his publisher for libel. But it seems that with his current research he may have overlooked a potential litigant. In his soon to be published collection A Twist Somewhere he alleges that one Millington-Forsett, despite being acquitted, was almost certainly guilty of the murder of his companion Travers while they were out shooting pheasants. And although the shooting occurred years ago, there is a small possibility that Millington-Forsett remains alive, and he has sought damages for libel in the past. Kennington's publisher Hodge refuses to release his book until he has some evidence of Millington-Forsett's death.

But Hodge is also reluctant to part with any more funds on behalf of a book which may never reach the shelves of a book store, and so he encourages Kennington to go in search of this evidence himself, offering his own secretary Miss Canning as assistant. And while it seems a simple question at first, one likely to be answered with a few phone calls or a quick search through records, there are soon hints that Millington-Forsett may have been an even darker character, responsible for the death of a second man in Paris assumed at the time to be a suicide. Sensing a mystery and an investigation that could result in a thrilling sequel to his book of essays, and intoxicated by the romantic idea of wandering around Paris unearthing evidence to confirm his conjectures, Kennington heads to France with Miss Canning, heedless of the danger, and brazen in the face of warnings to leave the case alone.

This novel affects to be that thrilling sequel, a dangerous document written years before and only published now that all the villains can be assumed safely dead, and no longer capable of exacting retribution. It means that we always know that Kennington survives his adventures, but we also know that he doesn't survive them unscathed, walking now with the aid of a walking stick, and acknowledging himself to be an object of pity for the torment he endured. This heightens the tension, the reader always aware that these two are taking on challenges beyond their abilities, and moving always towards some violent confrontantion for which they are unprepared.

It is really is a book in two parts, the first half fairly tedious, and the second half unexpectedly entertaining. The course they follow at first is simply too straight for it to be plausible, all a little too good to be true: the witnesses too easily located, too willing to talk, and too ready with the next vital piece of information. And then there is the developing romance between the pair, a romance characterised almost entirely by misunderstandings, disagreements, and criticism, and intentional acts to make each other unhappy.  It was difficult to take seriously characters who spent so much time feeling disaffected, or acting distant, or not calling each other, behaviour which seemed poor enough in the young Miss Canning, and completely ridiculous in the middle-aged Kennington. It was only when the romance question was resolved, and the focus returned to the events triggered by their pursuit of Millington-Forsett's misdeeds, that the story became interesting. From that point on it is a fast-paced adventure story, with interesting twists in the plot, and an unexpected conclusion.

There seemed to be a certain amount of snobbishness in the writing, with almost the entire of London written off as slums, Pimlico apparently a seedy area into which sensible people only venture during daylight hours, and anyone living in Brixton completely beyond the pale. These are characters who drink chianti, smoke Gauloises, eat gnocchi, and have creme fraiche to accompany their food: the foreign terms so artificially abundant, and so consciously placed in the text, that it seemed as though certain passages were written solely for the opportunity of embedding these European references. Perhaps the author  hoped to appeal to an audience  looking towards the Continent for their culture.

If I didn't have the intention of reading every Penguin, I doubt if I would have made it more than halfway, despite what seemed to be an interesting and original premise; the romance subplot was simply unnecessary and uninteresting . But if you can ignore how implausible it all is, the story improves dramatically as you read on.

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