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BOOK REVIEW / Thuggery with cads: 'The Closed Circle' - Robert Goddard: Bantam, 14.99 pounds

I SEEM to remember reading somewhere that Robert Goddard is John Major's favourite crime novelist. Certainly one of the jacket quotations in praise of previous books, though credited only to the Evening Standard, has that authentic Downing Street tone: 'Takes the reader on a journey from which he knows he will not deviate until the final destination is reached'. Oh yeah. Still, as Jeffrey Archer well knows, it's not fair to hold a writer responsible for his fans, and just as Trollope has risen above the dead hand of our leader's enthusiasm so, presumably, will Goddard.

He certainly knows how to spin a yarn. It is 1921, and two English conmen, Guy Horton and Max Wingate, are travelling back to Blighty on board the Empress of Britain, first class of course. It has seemed politic to leave New York ahead of a potentially embarrassing fraud trial. Max and Guy have been partners in crime since Winchester , and a long sea voyage can usually be relied upon to provide entertainment. Imagine their delight, therefore, when they happen on a major opportunity in the hefty shape of Miss Vita Charnwood and her enticing niece, Diana, only daughter of the mysterious international financier Fabian Charnwood.

Pausing only to sign mutual promises to share the proceeds, Max and Guy both make their pitch for the lovely Diana, and may the best man win and be lucratively bought off by the outraged father. (It worked in Le Touquet in 1924, with the daughter of sewing machine magnate Sir Antony Toogood, so no reason why it shouldn't work again.)

Max spoils the plot, however, by actually falling in love with Diana, much to Guy's disgust. Still, Fabian Charnwood plays the part of outraged father to perfection, and hints that he's not just any old international financier by subverting Guy and paying him to provide advance warning of the elopement. On the chosen night there is a fracas in the woods, after which Guy comes across the grieving Diana and Vita, and the corpse of Charnwood, his head comprehensively bashed in. The finger of suspicion can only point in one direction; Max confirms everyone's suspicions by legging it, hotly pursued by the charmless but astute Chief Inspector Kornby (Dublo Seven, no doubt.)

And all this is just the opening 60 pages or so. What ensues is a splendidly old-fashioned affair, full of thuggery and skulduggery, cross and double-cross, plot and counter-plot. There are mysterious Slavs and gimlet-eyed Germans, weasely little fixers (a walk-on part for Maundy Gregory) and large-scale manipulators of millions of puppets on the world stage. There is even an opportunity for Lord Gray of Falloden to reveal just how much world-weariness there was behind his famous bon mot about the lamps going out all over Europe. The pace is unrelenting, the plot is full of surprises. I read it at a sitting.

Notwithstanding the blurb's arch reference to 'strange echoes of more recent times', Goddard is no postmodern smartipants, bringing a galumphing dose of 20:20 hindsight to his tale. He is the direct descendant of such spinners of international paranoia as Erskine Childers (author of The Riddle of the Sands), John Buchan and, more recently, Geoffrey Household. You could say, I suppose, that Guy Horton, being a first-class bounder, is no Richard Hannay, and one can hardly imagine the latter allowing a woman, even one as splendid as Diana Charnwood, to apply his hand to her breast, an act which leads to a hardened nipple and thence to an energetic bout of squidginess. But the way that Guy hares about in all weathers by train and motor car is nothing if not Hannayesque, and he proves to be, if not a good egg, then certainly a curate's egg.

It's possible perhaps to make too much of the fact that President Clinton's favourite crime writer is the throughly hip Walter Mosley, though you wouldn't call Robert Goddard hip. I found the only other Goddard I've read a rather dull affair, but this is in a different class altogether; I haven't read anything like it since I was at school. I just hope the PM can take the excitement.