The House of Rumour By Jake Arnott

Here's what happened when Ian Fleming recruited an occultist

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The Independent Culture

How do we decide which bits of a story are relevant? How tenuous do the connections between disparate elements have to be before we can call a sequence of events a plot? Is Jake Arnott's new novel built – as its section headings imply – around the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck or is this, as the various narrative strands might be, mere coincidence? This is a book about our urge to make sense of things, to turn happenstance into story.

A young Ian Fleming is one of the major characters of House of Rumour as he recruits the ageing occultist Aleister Crowley to the war effort and accumulates incidents in the life of an intelligence officer that he will use later on in his fiction. Two young science fiction writers hang around the fringes of fandom and occultism in the early 1940s and witness the magical working that rocket scientist Jack Parsons may have done in collaboration with Crowley. Hitler's deputy Rudolf Hess flies to Scotland in a half-baked attempt to broker peace; decades later, he hangs himself in jail. A dossier on Hess passes through the hands of a trans hooker, and two rock singers. The star of a film about alien abduction dies in the Jonestown massacre.

The world of intelligence, the world of creativity, the world of the occult – all these dance round each other flirtatiously. We never quite know for sure who is using and who is being used. This kaleidoscope of narrative fragments sometimes looks like a pattern and sometimes like gaudy chaos, but always glitters. Arnott is not just a cynical games player fascinated by the possibilities of structure and thought experiments. He has the capacity to make us care about humanity, even of a monster like Hess.

Whatever he touches on feels right, whether he has made it up or looked it up; this is a supremely intelligent book as well as a surprisingly warm one.