Tabatha's Code, by Matthew d'Ancona

A roller-coaster ride from a hack who knows how to please his readers
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The Independent Culture

Matthew d'Ancona is best known as The Sunday Telegraph's skilful political columnist and, more recently, as The Spectator's editor. After a hard day turning over Westminster's turf wars, he has let his imagination rip.

Tabatha's Code is tactically similar to Going East, his first novel. Both begin with domestic or romantic scenes, before whisking us forward to an unexpected development. In each case, the set-up is subtle and both books become increasingly frenetic thrillers.

His central character, Nick, is first glimpsed as an Englishman abroad in his early twenties, coming to the end of a Californian affair with Tabatha. Nick is destined to be a great lawyer; Tab calls time before their inevitable separation. She loves Nick, but insists that she'll never answer his calls, merely place coded personal ads in a magazine - adverts that depend for interpretation upon knowing your Yeats.

Skip forward 19 years, and Nick reappears not as a top-notch lawyer, but as a bored English teacher, recently separated from his wife and daughter. This is a nice twist, although the novel almost stalls because d'Ancona dwells excessively on Nick's post-marital blues. It accelerates when Nick is caught up in Tab's involvement in a militant, anti-globalisation movement, a green terror group that thinks that violent action is imperative. Tab's coded messages, which Nick has continued, lovelorn, to read for two decades, are now of pressing interest to terror and anti-terror groups.

The word "code" may bring cold sweats to readers suffering from Da Vinci trauma, and the novel's cryptological aspect is less than cracking. D'Ancona's style is occasionally ponderous, especially when he goes lyrical on us ("Like golden horses charging across the peaks, the lights rolled up and over into the valley"). Nevertheless, he is expert when it comes to plotting. He is particularly good at bluffing and double-cross.

The closing scenes of Tabatha's Code are much, much more gripping than those of Going East. The ultimate sin of a thriller-writer is to pack in action so tightly that you have to take your brains out and scratch them. Not here: d'Ancona keeps us in the loop; and that his subject, a new breed of radicalism, is highly believable also keeps us sweet. Once the lever is yanked, Tabatha's Code is as big a dipper as you'd delight to ride.

The writer's 'Impossible Objects' is published by Cinnamon

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