The Card, By Graham Rawle. Atlantic £16.99


Eccentrics are compelling, and the narrator of Graham Rawle's second novel, set in 1997, is no exception. Fixated on random patterns, Riley adheres to odd routines, avidly collecting cards and eating food that alliterates. Pork, parsnips and potatoes are allowed, but are unappetisingly dry, as gravy starts with a different letter. He is an avid seeker of celebrities, exaggerating every insignificant encounter with cheesy Z-list stars of yesteryear, and boasts about his (distant) family connection to Barry Manilow.

His rituals may be symptomatic of mild obsessive compulsive disorder or Asperger's syndrome, but, devoid of self-awareness, his behaviour seems normal to him. He is blind to his self-aggrandisement, dropping nuggets of hubris. Though his barber "is well aware of my Manilow connection, he treats me just like any other customer".

The story starts when an editor of a card magazine agrees to consider, for his readers' section, a piece Riley pitches about the provenance of a mysterious bubblegum card: number 19 in the 1967 Mission Impossible series. The card was withdrawn immediately after printing, and all copies pulped except for one, sneaked home by a printer for his son. Riley is distracted from his article by the repeated discovery of discarded cards. He is convinced they are conveying a vitally important message to him that could save the life of Diana, Princess of Wales. Thus starts a quixotic quest in which ever more convoluted interpretations are placed on these found images.

The action is narrated frankly in the first person by Riley, with the hapless hero's surprisingly sensitive and poignant article in the third person. As well as being a factual account of the elusive card's origins, this piece is also a personal story of the way that Riley's father left his wife and son.

Riley is gormless, but his geeky charm and lack of guile render his account unintentionally hilarious. Packed with colourful characters and an idiosyncratic charisma, this gem also raises questions about the labelling of eccentrics as dangerous, and is marred only by a major coincidence and a too-neat ending.