Martin Clay and his wife Kate are both art historians, though he is comparatively new to the discipline, having begun a philosopher, and she is currently absorbed in their baby Tilda. When they move to their damp country cottage so that Martin can for once meet a deadline and finish a book, they're invited to dinner by the local landowner Tony Churt, a rough, uncompromising but rather shambolic character, "with the grip of a man used to wringing the necks of wounded game birds" (Alan Bates could do the part in a film). Churt has inherited a Giordano, showing the rape of Helen, which he thinks might be worth a bob or two: would Martin care to offer his opinion? Oh, and while he's at it, why not take a look at these three Dutch buggers, smaller in size so presumably worth much less - what about them?
In fact, one of these Dutch buggers is a Bruegel, the "Merrymakers", a representation of spring painted in 1565, and part - the missing part - of his great sequence on the Seasons. Or so, at a glance, Martin decides. His problem is how to get the painting from Churt (who is desperate for money to keep up his estate) without letting him know its origin and value. To begin with, he doesn't even let Kate know, but treks up to London to confirm his hunch. His library researches there excite him. It wouldn't be the first Bruegel to appear out of the blue centuries later: the last, a minor work, sold for nearly pounds 1m. Of course Martin is not thinking about the money, but of professional recognition, and public duty, and the good he will do the nation, indeed the world. Still ...
Thus begins his headlong pursuit, much of it cerebral, since he has to convince himself, then Kate, then Churt's attractive young wife Laura - who mistakes his interest in the painting for a desire to go to bed with her - that he is a) right b) behaving honourably and c) not going to screw it up. His anxieties and intellectual self-justifications are part of the novel's manic pace. His growing obsession with Bruegel, which sends him off at various tangents, threatens the success of his scam. And learning about the personal turmoil in which Bruegel painted his canvas only adds to his own.
If the scholarship in Headlong points to Michael Frayn's own deep fascination with Bruegel, he never loses the plot. The novel is farce in the best sense, and has affinities with Frayn's screenplay for Clockwise, in which the John Cleese character keeps running up against new obstacles that prevent him from fulfilling his quest. In Martin's case, the obstacles are legion: Churt's brother, who claims the family paintings are his; Churt himself, who wants to clean the Bruegel in rough and ready fashion; a rival art historian called Quiss (always distrust someone whose surname begins with Q); a dodgy London dealer; not to mention thefts, impersonations, dogs, inheritance tax, nominalism, bank loans, mobile phones, car chases, Land Rovers with wonky steering, and - a key motif - baler twine. Among the questions to be faced before the end is one of the oldest in the book: is the price worth paying to save an artistic masterpiece that of a human life?
The novel is narrated by Martin, and though mostly reliable as a narrator (he may lie to himself, but he doesn't lie to us), in practically every other respect, and especially in respect of practicality, he can't be relied on at all. Reading him, you feel like a child at a pantomime, exasperatedly aware of what's behind him, or under his nose, frustrated at his inability to see and do the obvious. Against the odds (for he's too cold a fish to be really likeable), you're desperate for him to succeed. But Frayn masterfully manipulates events so that he won't or can't, not yet. As you're dragged into his headlong race for fame and riches, you never know what will happen next, only that more torture lies in store.
To play the torturer for nearly 400 pages, yet give pleasure to the reader, takes special charm and cunning. Frayn works the trick so that we, like Martin, are trapped inside a labyrinth of narrative. It's a pity only that the cover of Headlong shows a real painting by Bruegel, "The Fall of Icarus". But the imaginary one discovered by Martin is described in persuasive, loving detail within. And the scenario the novel invents for us - a landscape of human comedy, with sadness etched beneath - is a homage to Bruegel in Frayn's own manner.