Salvage, By Robert Edric

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Experienced Robert Edric-fanciers – that brave, exotic cadre – may note the resemblances between Salvage and The Face of the Waters (2006). The hero of that earlier novel was a Victorian surveyor charged with turning a Northern valley into a municipal reservoir. Edric's latest protagonist is a 22nd-century civil servant sent to assess a beleaguered town's suitability for "redevelopment". A quarter-millennium apart, themes recur: wary incomer; suspicious onlookers; threatened livelihoods; the sense of mighty dissatisfactions boiling beneath the surface.

Quinn, the official briskly at large in this boreal dystopia, is an "auditor" – a job description carrying the same air of menace as "inquisitor". Driving around the rain-drenched hills, riffling through the corporation archives, making his presence felt in a world of locked doors and routine incivility, he is soon brought into contact with half-a-dozen people capable of nudging his work out of kilter. They include Anna, a government vet busy exhuming the cattle pits, chief executive Greer, Stearns, the swivel-eyed security chief, and Owen, a ruined farmer. Determinism abounds, and Quinn's stake-outs in the motel room with Anna are as predictable as the water swirling over the foundations of Rev Pollard's renaissant church.

Like many an Edric hero, Quinn is a compromised figure, aware of the vested interests jousting above his head and the futility of his own authentications, but determined to get at the truth – should the truth still be there. Just as lightly sketched as his personal life – the wife and daughter dead in a car-crash– are the nods to what has been happening in the wider world. One character remembers having "left the Midlands on the day the Thames Barrier failed for the final time". There is talk of the Scots preparing to "relax their own immigration policy". The Gulf Stream has failed, and the war against terror just entered its second century.

The denouements of Edric's novels very often resemble a game of chess in which nobody can see all the pieces. This one, during an unprecedented "gold-level" rain-storm, is no exception. Salvage ignores the usual dystopian patterns. Everything is done by hint and allusion, the stifling insistence on order and design best brought out by an episode in which Quinn, staring from his motel window, sees a line of ministry vehicles following the sequence of their registration numbers. A certain amount of the novel may be read as a satire on corporate-speak. Most of it, though, is simply Edric doing what he does: pushing half-a-dozen ill-assorted individuals up against each other in a world they don't much like and can't properly understand. This is his 19th novel and – against some hot competition – one of his very best.

DJ Taylor's new novel is 'At the Chime of a City Clock' (Constable)

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