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.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum