The Hartlepool Monkey, By Sean Longley

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The Independent Culture

The current mayor of Hartlepool is a monkey – or, to be accurate, an ex-monkey. H'Angus, the mascot of the football team, was elected in 2002 on a platform of "Free Bananas for Every Schoolchild". The promise was abandoned but the mayor was re-elected, having reverted to his human name of Stuart Drummond.

All this monkey business derives from a local legend. During the Napoleonic wars, a French ship was wrecked off the coast. The only survivor was a monkey someone had kept dressed in full naval uniform. The fishermen who found him wanted to hang him but, to be fair, they interrogated him first. Then they hanged him.

This ill-fated anthropoid provides the inspiration for a lively romp of a first novel by Sean Longley, who turns the tale into a wide-ranging adventure. We begin with the French physician Simon Legris, curious, libidinous, and filled with the Enlightenment spirit. Through a series of events involving his mistress and a runaway wolf, he finds himself accompanying the son of a new employer on an expedition to Africa. There he adopts a simian creature, either a human-like chimpanzee or a chimpanzee-like human, blessed with the gifts of speech and intellect. The creature accompanies Legris back to France, where he is officially granted human status and given the name Jacques LeSinge.

The Revolution breaks out, and the story picks up during the Terror. We follow Legris's former mistress Claudette as she becomes caught up in espionage and infiltrates the British escape network, where she hobnobs with the Scarlet Pimpernel and Horatio Nelson. The plot thickens, in ways it would be a shame to divulge. Novel and legend intermesh as LeSinge is taken ashore in his uniform and arrested. Then the versions diverge. LeSinge ends up in a proper court facing trial. The final twist is recounted by his "one-guinea brief", Warrens.

Longley is a "one-guinea brief" himself, and a history graduate. He puts his enthusiasm for the past to invigorating use. The plot is fun; the characters should be too, but are a little too prefabricated. The most intriguing, LeSinge, remains an enigma. This preserves his role as international monkey of mystery, but makes one more aware of the aura missing from the others. Still, Longley's storytelling verve carries one at full sail through what is definitely a two-guinea book.