Book review / Some questions of attribution
The Dancing Face by Mike Phillips Collins Crime, pounds l5.99
Saturday 19 July 1997
Collins Crime, pounds l5.99
Gus Dixon, a lecturer, is the central character in this crime novel for thinking readers. Mike Phillips, who previously wrote a series of thrillers featuring the black journalist Sam Dean, could be placed between David Caute and Jeffrey Archer as a skilled creator of street-level relationships that revolve around crime. With subdued sex and some natural four- letter language, his books could help move detective-story buyers forward to well-constructed literature.
This mystery shows the fate of a stolen African mask, as student Danny Dixon is drawn into the plot by brother Gus. The well-drawn cast of characters face the past rather than reliving it. Gus had joined the Committee for Reparations in Africa against his better judgement, and grew disillusioned with their activities. He is tempted to direct action, in contrast to useless plans described by a powerful Nigerian exile: "Look around you," he said softly. "All of these people have plans. Some of them live on the Arts Council. Some of them live on the dole. They join committees, they make plans and what they get is a few crumbs off the white man's table."
Mike Phillips is firmly with the Establishment and alongside it. He recently completed a writer's residency at the South Bank: the place to realise that, in this country, bits of tradition, art or religion can be used with confidence. In contrast, he asserts that in Africa, the disasters of the past may be imposed on the present. He also declares that things built in Africa don't last: "Unlike England they never build them right in the first place."
Phillips notes the formation, deformation and reformation of nations, sometimes washed in blood. There is, for instance, his insight that boarding schools once used for the children left behind by expatriates now educate the offloaded offspring of new business elites from around the world. Could Mike Phillips, as an English social observer, become a successor to J B Priestley?
As for the missing mask, it is the equivalent to a stolen casket of Becket's bones. The novel conveys a sense of anger about the desecration of sacred things. Politics is kept in a proper place. ("The British will beg, negotiate, threaten but get nothing but polite indifference or outright rejection.") The strong imagery includes a Georgian crescent with the pale beauty of a white cliff face and a fey sheen in candlelit green eyes, with tiny gleams of reflected light.
This moving mystery is not dominated by its hidden depths and undercurrents of sorrow and despair. Shaping the world, even a local world, makes life worth living. Danny Dixon denies that people can be reduced to their ancestry or parentage, or to the potatoes their granddad planted. He explains that "I don't know much about my dad but he was born in some hole which he left as soon as he could. So he chose to cut himself off from all the associations, customs, territory and all the rest of it that you're saying is so important. But that did not make him less. It made him more than some idiot who sits in the same place his whole life. He exercised a choice to become what he was."
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