BOOKS: MIMI'S GHOST by Tim Parks, Secker £14.99 Secker £14.99

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The Independent Culture
MORRIS DUCKWORTH is a sub-urban Englishman who's got lucky. Born in Acton and raised by a pub- brutalised father, he has married into a rich provincial family in Verona. At 30, "exactly poised between youth and maturity", he's got blond good looks, ambition, and all the sharp vowels and practised materialism - he appreciates fine floor tiles - of the modern Italian. But there's a cloud in his Veronese sky: he has murdered three people.

Mimi's Ghost opens where its predecessor Cara Massimina left off, with Morris sharking around the local pond, swimming hard to stay afloat. In the previous book (published under the pseudonym John MacDowell in 1990, but reissued this month as Parks's own) he kidnapped and killed Mimi, and got away with it. Now he's married to her dull sister Paola, which gives him access to the family wine-business and his mother-in-law's will, but traps him in the bosom of his potential accusers. Stolid and bourgeois, they're already suspicious of Morris and his flash foreign ways, and small clues about Mimi's death cling to his Armani-clad person like dandruff. Then Mimi returns as a ghost - her eyes watching him from her graveside photo, her voice on his car phone -and Morris suddenly has to swim a lot harder.

For 200 pages Parks writes a comedy of manners, capturing dinners with stony in-laws, small farces and coin-cidences with the deftness of Jane Austen. His writing is funny and lean. His minor characters (a penniless florid ex-pat and vast African immigrant to provide Morris with allies; a sour fat brother-in-law called Bobo to oppose him) verge on caricature, but the sentences glide by so swiftly you don't notice. Parks relishes reversing expectations about the two cultures: he makes the natives dour and repressed, while Morris charms and schemes like a cartoon Italian; they "think of beauty more as a consumer product than something of spiritual value", while he dreams of Art; even the cypress-dotted hillsides are invisible in perpetual midwinter freezing fog.

But Parks springs early plot surprises, too. Rather than exposing Morris, Mimi's ghost makes him turn philanthropic, employing homeless African immigrants to work in the vineyards, converting a crumbling farmhouse into a cultural centre. Morris enjoys the change, swelling with self-righteous paternalism. But his good deeds undermine him when Bobo, racist and enraged, confronts him in the family office. He says he knows about Mimi; Morris crushes his head with a filing cabinet.

Now the comedy is black, not mannered. Urged on by Mimi, Morris loses himself in a panic of lies, supporting lies and counter-lies. One minute he's as thrilled by the giddy spiral as a Jacob-ean villain, the next oddly distanced: "All he could really do was to react, to feel the rope trembling beneath his feet and take the next step ... engaged not in the action at all, but in watching himself doing it, in reflecting upon it, in hoping that it would turn out for the best." Parks teeters over the brink too, leaving out climaxes and conclusions, jumping forwards, then explaining in passing what happened earlier.

Inevitably, author and protagonist over-elaborate. Morris goes to jail, has his face torn off by a Doberman and commits two more murders, inventing ever more fantastic alibis. With so much energy going into the plot, Parks starts drawing his characters more crudely, making Morris's chief pursuer, a Tyrolese policeman called Fendsteig, into a Dad's Army teutonic caricature of reptilian eyes and guttural vowels. Conversations over pastries at sunlit cafes follow hard on bloody manglings, like Pulp Fictionadapted by Peter Mayle. And the climax to it all comes in a courtroom - an exhausted Parks resting on the kind of airport literature device you wouldn't find in his subtler works like 1993's Shear. But he's clever enough to leave the story open, with his hero still fretting about his crimes and the risk of discovery, "hilarity and horror reflecting each other down the interminable hall of distorting mirrors that was Morris Duckworth's mind". This is a sly book; Parks should just hope his neighbours don't read it.