Sceptre £15 (296pp) £13.50 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897

The Devil's Paintbrush, By Jake Arnott

The Game of Consequences is a fine generator of story: historical or literary personages can be slammed together for the sparks and banter. Most usually, the game slips into default setting and the plot consequence is that they Fight Crime. Less often, and more interestingly, imaginary conjunctions are the stuff of which a weird poetry is made, which illuminates both characters, and the age in which their careers can be made to overlap.

Jake Arnott's new novel juxtaposes diverse Edwardian figures on what we know - from history if not from the text - to have been the last night on earth of one of them. One of the many pleasures of this skilful book is the maintenance of suspense as to whether in this iteration, with magic and drugs in the mix, of what we know to have happened will happen.

Here, Aleister Crowley is not quite yet notorious as the Great Beast and the wickedest man in the world. But he is already as caught up in the intrigues and backbitings of the occult world as he is in sex, drugs and rock-climbing. Hector MacDonald, an authentic hero of Victoria's empire who rose from private to general, is about to be broken by sexual peccadilloes. Randomly, they meet in Paris in 1903, and what ensues foreshadows the new century. Others contribute to the conversation - notably Clive Bell, the art critic - but Arnott's interest is in what these two have to teach each other.

The Devil's Paintbrush itself is, of course, nothing to do directly with aesthetics, while being the most Futurist of gadgets. It is the Maxim gun, which MacDonald saw used in Kitchener's campaigns in the Sudan, so called because it splashes men's blood on the landscape. Part of what makes MacDonald vulnerable is that he needs to be able to live with himself - he loved and lost in the Sudan, and knows also that he betrayed and killed.

This is a book about homosexuality and scandal, and the press and Islamic fundamentalism; it is also to do with the terms on which people choose to survive. Part of what makes Crowley oddly admirable is that he has a capacity for self-delusion which means that he can live on any terms life, and his appetites, dictate. MacDonald does, in the end, what religion and custom and his King require of him. Yet in the process, he shows strength, courage and grace. Arnott does not ask us to choose between them - but much of the moral force of this excellent book lies in his demonstration that there is, nonetheless, a choice to be made.

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