At The Chime of a City Clock, By DJ Taylor

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

That's three books in a row from DJ Taylor that circle around the turn of the decadent 1920s into the low dishonest decade that followed it. First we had the group biography Bright Young People, which went on to inform the novel Ask Alice, about an American farm girl risen to the shady heights of British society. Now At the Chime of a City Clock advertises itself boldly as "a thriller", rather as Graham Greene designated some of his slighter works "entertainments".

Taylor provides some splashes of high-class colour, but by and large we are in the grey-washed world of London boarding houses and door-to-door salesmen. James Ross is an aspiring writer making ends meet by flogging bottles of violent carpet cleaner to Bayswater widows. His entry to a more dangerous world comes courtesy of a beautiful redhead, Susie, secretary to Mr Rasmussen, a businessman of vague denomination.

The plot's climax comes when Ross, under pressure from the police, inveigles his way into a country-house weekend where Rasmussen is a guest. He doesn't catch Rasmussen at anything, but then not very dramatic happens at all. Earlier, Taylor carefully sets up a night-time jewellery shop burglary, but it's abandoned when the tension's highest. He goes to similar pains to engineer a sting operation, in which Ross is to pretend to have an affair with a bored film star to provoke her husband into divorcing her, but that too peters out inconsequentially.

Which is not to say that the novel is a failure: far from it. Taylor paces his story brilliantly, but it is a gentle Sunday trot through his chosen genre, rather than a breakneck race. I rarely found myself on the edge of my seat: no, I was comfortably shiggled far back in it, enjoying every politely underpowered set piece, every period detail worn unostentatiously – Lyons coffee houses, jellygraph machines, hoodlums who call women "borassics" and say, "What a mulligatawny, eh?". Taylor even observes the etiquette of the period regarding profanity: "F-----g tarts' clothes messing up his good suit! The idea."

In the end, that cover should read "a thriller... for bookish types". If you can spot the link to Julian Maclaren-Ross in the hero's name, and to Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square in that of his ex-girlfriend Netta, then you're more than likely to chuckle over the seedy private detective Faulks with his brown mac and his "strand or two of spindly hair plastered across his head". All in good fun, of course, and a carefully-wrought, warm and inoffensive sort of fun is what this book is all about. I hope it doesn't come across as faint praise to say it's as pleasurable as a sit-down with nice cup – no, a pot – of good tea.