Books: In Brief

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The Ogre's Laboratory by Louis Buss, Cape pounds 9.99. What sort of character would you imagine a Father Snow to be? Cold, reserved, distant, but capable of thawing out? Absolutely right. And when you are told, on the first page, that he has lips which "might have been full, almost sensual, if he had allowed them to relax", then you'd be prepared to bet good money that here is one priest who is not going to get to the end of the book with his celibacy intact.

This obviousness initially threatened to spoil The Ogre's Laboratory: everything is handed to you on a plate. Thus, we are not allowed to infer the nature of Fr Snow's friendship with his mentor, Vincent - it's spelt out for us in the first few pages. The writing seems to strive too hard for precision; it's too careful, too afraid of ambiguity. The attention to physical detail - clothes, food, furniture, bluebells and so on - recalls mid- period Iris Murdoch (as incidentally, do the Gothic elements, the single- viewpoint narrative and the interest in priests). But Buss lacks the fluidity of Murdoch's prose and the subtlety of her observation.

At first, that is. For the more of The Ogre's Laboratory I read, the more I warmed to it. Towards the end I was reading at a gallop. This is partly because, while the prose style may be obvious, the plot certainly is not. It kept me intrigued until the very last pages.

It's a heavily Gothic affair involving the mysterious suicide of a priest; a power-mad Tory MP; a sinister hidden laboratory; hints of child sexual abuse; and the legend of Everard Trevellyan, a medieval ogre who preyed on children and whose spirit still seems to be abroad in Fr Snow's parish. All this and a love intrigue too.

Moreover, the prose seems to loosen up as it goes on. And Father Snow loosens up too. He becomes a likeable, human character - quite a feat when you consider that he holds such beliefs as "homosexuality is wrong" and is capable of telling a lesbian confessor so. Despite this, I found myself rooting for him as if he were my best friend.

Lots of books begin well; this one ends well, which is rarer. I still feel that Buss's writing would benefit if he took on board the Creative Writing class maxim of `Show, don't tell'. But it would be ungrateful to cavil. I began reading with coldness, reserve and distance, but I was thoroughly thawed out by the end.