Heads You Win by Ferdinand Mount

The novel's fantastic (what a shame he was a Tory propagandist)
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The Independent Culture


The roots of Ferdinand Mount's A Chronicle of Modern Twilight, of which this is the final instalment, go back nearly 30 years to The Man Who Rode Ampersand (1975), a novel which memorialises ("not unmovingly" as Anthony Powell put it) the author's gentleman-rider father. Subsequently, after a 12-year gap broken by 1987's The Selkirk Strip, the sequence has edged forward at the rate of a volume every four or five years: a desultory progress which would have Powell (a dozen volumes of a Dance to the Music of Time in 24 years) or Simon Raven (10 volumes of Alms For Oblivion in 12) shaking their heads over the lamentable want of staying power.

While inevitable, comparisons with Powell (Mount's uncle by marriage) and Raven are not injurious. All three specialise in the devious unravelling of a certain kind of middle-to-upper-class English life, rife with pattern and design, in which an old world is clearly slipping away while something a great deal nastier loiters over the horizon. At the same time, Mount lacks both Raven's gameyness and Powell's symbol-strewn concentration. There is a kind of untidiness about his books, the sense of frail human structures built up out of fragments and liable to blow away in a moment, a randomness of cause and effect from which the narrative line seems to escape almost by accident.

Heads You Win turns out to be a superior example of the Mount technique. However innocuous at first glance, its opening chapters are soon exposed as a rigorous marshalling of cast and motive. "Gus" (Aldous) Cotton, Mount's raissoneur, is in lowish water. Deep into his late fifties, wife engrossed in her historical research, worried about his prostate, he is wistfully absorbed by the plot of John Buchan's last novel, Sick Heart River, whose ailing elderly hero, Sir Edward Leithen, lights out on one final grand adventure. A chance encounter in Ireland with his disgraced financier chum Joe Follows, the running to earth in a Home Counties nick of drug- trafficking sci-fi novelist Keith Trull and enforced early retirement from the Civil Service knock his own life unexpectedly off course. "You are the fourth horseman," Joe hollers at him over the phone, in an ominous reference to the Book of Revelations, "and we're on course for a spring launch."

The venture, after which the novel is named, turns out to be an immensely savvy head-hunting concern, trading not only on Joe and Keith's expertise but on the sultry attractions of the third partner, recovering 26 year-old alcoholic Jade Treviso. Dodgy pasts are advantageously re-spun by the copywriters ("They picked themselves up, so can you" runs the slogan beneath the directorial CVs) and paper fortunes slide instantly into view. There follows a high old tale of commercial over-reach, fractured alliances and corporate chicanery, played out against a backdrop of desperate pre-Millennial unease, and full of sad little proofs of Gus's detachment from the world in which he moves. In one he hovers on the brink of an affair with Gracia, the buxom ornament of an evangelical church with which Trull is involved. In another he is despatched to Wales on the scent of an ex-colleague by the latter's abandoned wife. Alas, Mr Riley-Jones has "come out" and opened a restaurant with his boyfriend.

Come the close, amid a catalogue of death, desertion and betrayal, the twilight has deepened into outright dusk. Even Gus's amiable wife Nellie has been at it with her unpromising researcher. To read this is to wonder at Mount's comparative lack of celebrity. Why is he not spoken of in the same breath as Amis, Barnes and co? The answer, you imagine, lies in the regrettable fact that he is a sixtysomething disclaiming baronet who, among other accomplishments, wrote the 1983 Tory election manifesto, and such people are just not fashionable. Trend-broking or not, Heads You Win is one of the best novels I have read this year.

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