BOOK REVIEW / Anti-Semite in a Peugeot

THE STATEMENT by Brian Moore, Bloomsbury pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
FOR 25 years, Brian Moore has lived on Malibu Beach where the surfers and California girls play. This seems an unlikely home for a Belfast- born novelist, and for one who, like Moore, confronts big themes with a sombre eye. The crisis of faith, the betrayal of loyalties: there are no easy answers in his parables of conscience. The Statement concerns a former policeman who murdered 14 Jews in wartime France and is now a fugitive from justice.

Pierre Brossard must surely be Brian Moore's most unpleasant creation. Like an alley rat he scurries from abbey to presbytery, protected by the Church's medieval laws of asylum. Yet, uncharacteristically, Moore fails to establish the reader's empathy with him. Brossard's amorality has no clear motive; he murders without a qualm. Memorable Brian Moore characters are usually fallible, deeply ambivalent, but with rich interior lives. In his first work, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Moore created a compelling creature with all-too-human frailties: an ageing alcoholic spinster who hides her weakness from the world and herself. Moore's 18th novel appears anaemic and lacks the heart and psychological insight of earlier marvels like I am Mary Dunne or Catholics.

Graham Greene called Moore his favourite living novelist. He admired his spare, unadorned prose with its metaphysical resonance. Moore is a lifelong unbeliever; yet how well he conjured a sense of holiness in Cold Heaven. In his best fiction his gift is to locate the moment of crisis when a character loses belief, religious or otherwise, and life is exposed in all its drab wonder. There is nothing as momentous in The Statement, though the plot is skewered on some grave moral dilemmas. Should the good priest betray his Father Superior (an old-time anti-Semite) for giving shelter to the wretched Brossard? Or should he, instead, protect his Order against the scandal of Brossard's arrest?

In recent years, Brian Moore has honed his art to the bone, writing the leanest of thrillers. The best of them, The Colour of Blood, was sharp as a whip and read like a hybrid of Borges and Eric Ambler. The Statement goes even further in dispensing with characterisation in favour of strong narrative; it has the documentary quality of journalism. A former newspaperman himself, Brian Moore's research into post-war France is impressive. He deftly sets up the time-honoured rivalry between the city police, who had collaborated with the German occupiers, and the rural gendarmerie, sympathetic to the Resistance. It is a colonel of the gendarmerie who leads the search for Pierre Brossard as he moves from hideout to hideout in a old Peugeot, a suitcase of Nazi mementos in the boot.

As the net closes in on Brossard, the novel takes us higher into the French government. How has Brossard, twice sentenced to death in absentia for wartime crimes, managed to hide for so long in France, when other crypto-Nazis had fled to Paraguay? The truth is that Brossard, the pathological Jew-hater, is sheltered in his own land by the French hierarchy - in particular, by a former Paris Prefect of Police who helped send Jews to Auschwitz. Moore gives a chilling portrait of this flic with his dark ministerial suit and claw-like hands.

Brian Moore is a fabulously Protean author. From his Californian home he has produced a historical novel set among the early Jesuit missionaries of Canada; a science fiction about an antique collector; a ghost story with apparitions of the Virgin Mary; and, latterly, a batch of taut suspense novels. For newcomers to Moore's work, this is a rich quarry, and The Statement is a respectable, if perhaps rather thin, addition.