Murder most snobbish : THE ONE AND ONLY Francis King Constable £14.99

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Francis King is generally thought of as a highly civilised writer, but he is more than that. Particularly in his novels of the last 10 years, he anatomises and empathises with behaviour, emotions, and passionate relationships which set civilisatio n at naught - and before which civilisation itself must tremble. The same could be said of friends of his, such as Robert Lidell, Olivia Manning, Barbara Pym andtheir mentor Ivy Compton-Burnett, but Francis King's novels, unlike hers, do not take place i n some stylised domain. The destructive element they explore is nurtured in very specific milieux, and pursued by men and women who are socially identifiable, their speech and mannerisms minutely caught, their class affiliations and driving obsessions al l but inextricable.

The One and Only is a brilliant example of King's art. It is told in the first person - but in a carefully elaborate, far from linear way - by an antique-dealer living pseudonymously in hiding in Sussex. His narration is a tense, taut journey towards thecrime he committed in his adolescence, one of such enormity that it has necessitated a life-long exile from his given social identity. His crime is the one which perhaps in all societies shocks the most profoundly - and readers who don't want the plot revealed (and spoilt!) should stop here. For Mervyn murdered (and it is part of the novel's purpose to show how inadequate a word that is) his own mother.

Mervyn comes from a seemingly conventional family, and the torrid drama at the centre of this book unfolds in conventional enough circumstances: a marvellously realised public school, a house in Kensington near the 52 bus route, a rented villa by Lake Como. It is a world that is kept going, to a very large degree, by shibboleths which somehow exonerate it from any deeper fidelity to moral codes, and indeed from any proper appraisal of what moral truths these should serve.

If Mervyn's mother is a promiscuous, trivial-minded monster, she is one sustained by a snobbish society which can, when it chooses, wax sentimental over the notion of motherhood and family life. If the parents of Mervyn's great friend, Bob, are missiona ries, carrying their country's official Christianity overseas, they are also members of the cold English bourgeoisie, incapable of giving their son any emotional sustenance.

The story is that of a quartet, Mervyn, Bob, Mervyn's mother and her feckless lover, Jim. The members of the quartet engender hatred in one another above all else, a hatred that owes much of its terrible intensity to the loveless, hierarchy-obsessed cul ture in which they have found themselves. It's a culture that refuses honestly to face up to desire and human mortality.

The novel ends most movingly both with an act of love which is a kind of death, and with a death informed by love. If not quite so rich in the range of human experience it embraces as King's most compelling recent novel, Punishments (1989), it is a wort hy companion to it.