A Matter of Time, By Alex Capus

A war-torn farce worth waiting for

The French-Swiss novelist Alex Capus bases his 10th book on a highly eccentric character and a farcical incident early in the First World War. Kaiser Wilhelm's outnumbered soldiers rattled sabres at Belgian troops and a small Royal Navy expeditionary force over the massive expanse of Lake Tanganyika in central Africa.

By 1913, Geoffrey Basil Spicer-Simson had served three miserable years charting the course of the Gambia river in a clapped-out steam launch. After recall to the excitement of war-footing Britain, his hapless career endures fresh humiliation. Charged with minesweeping duties off the Thames estuary, Spicer-Simson manages to be onshore entertaining his wife to lunch when a German submarine torpedoes his vessel. The resulting court martial and demotion is only reprieved when the Admiralty has no spare officer for a secret mission. Elated, Spicer-Simson seizes his heroic opportunity, hauling two armed speedboats by rail from Cape Town and overland through jungle to counter Germany's naval control of Lake Tanganyika.

Giles Foden fleshed out this military sideshow in his 2004 book Mimi and Toutou Go Forth, and Capus similarly captures Spicer-Simson's "incorrigible megalomania". He diverges from Foden by balancing Spicer-Simson's sense of theatre with the reluctant progress of master shipwright Anton Rüter, assembling the Kaiser's gunship Götzen. Rüter's strained relations with his superior officer steadily ratchet up tension in a novel that, like much of war, is preoccupied with waiting. Spicer-Simson's easily lampoonable character makes for comic entertainment, but Capus warms to a surprisingly sympathetic view of his military performance. This enriches the psychology of a peculiar man on a bizarre mission.

If the final maritime skirmishes hold echoes of The African Queen, Capus's quiet denouement resonates with that other Bogart classic, Casablanca. This droll morsel of martial history, in the main, makes up for inactivity with the conflicted ambitions of its protagonists.