Books: Seduction of a sulky sphinx
Sunday 11 April 1999
By John Preston
Doubleday pounds 12.99
, John Preston's second novel, is 429 pages long and I read it in two days. Obviously, readability is not the only virtue that a novel may have; still, it's an important one and rates highly on it.
The story opens one dark winter's night in 1989, when a man throws himself into the Thames off Hungerford Bridge. When his body is fished out three days later, it is so rotted that identification is impossible. Hugh Byrne, a lonesome, melancholy journalist with writer's block who works on one of the last remaining Fleet Street papers, is sent to cover the story. And so begins a teasing, mysterious whowozzit of a tale, which keeps you turning the pages out of sheer curiosity.
The combination of readability and intricate plotting recalls Jonathan Coe, and indeed Preston resembles Coe in other respects: the slightly artificial air of the macabre, the forgivable implausibility, the comic set pieces, the sense of a controlling niceness behind the scenes. Preston, though, doesn't keep his foot pressed down quite so firmly on the gas as Coe does. Towards the end of , there's a good comic moment when an article "On Being Taken For Granted" appears in the paper under the byline of the Home Secretary; in fact, it was written by a disaffected office tea-boy. But Preston doesn't actually quote any of the article; Coe would certainly have given it to us in full.
The heavy dependence on plot inevitably means that the characterisation is on the light side. The characters are clearly drawn, but they don't have much in the way of inner lives. Most of them are journalists, as is Preston himself, and he doesn't appear to have a very high opinion of the breed. Almost all the characters are male, too, and on the whole his is a bit of a bloke's book. Hugh Byrne is given a love interest to relieve his lonesomeness, involving a sulky secretary called Vivien. Vivien turns out to be much sexier undressed than dressed, but we get little sense of what makes her tick or why she is drawn to Hugh. Not that there's anything wrong with a sphinx keeping her secret; but one would like to be reassured that she's actually got one.
Preston's style is smooth and efficient and he's good at evoking a sense of place: pubs and clubs, dreary streets and suburbs, oppressive offices, the River Thames, Wapping, and Fleet Street in its last days are all vividly realised. The excerpts from old London guide-books seem to me to be rather overdoing the Londonness of it all - an attempt to out-Ackroyd Peter Ackroyd (an impossible task, of course). Still, Preston does write well about the city.
He does most things well, in fact. This is an entertaining, dextrously written novel. Why, then, did I feel a faint sense of disappointment on finishing it? I think it's because the solution to all the mystery is less interesting than the mystery itself. One feels the same sort of let-down one gets when a baffling conjuring trick is explained. I don't think I'll feel impelled to reread this novel, which is one of the most reliable tests of whether a book is better than quite good. But I certainly felt impelled to read it to the end. And it did give me an enjoyable two days. So thank you, John Preston.
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