The Monster's Lament, By Robert Edric

 

There comes a moment in practically every Robert Edric novel when the setting (Victorian Cumberland, African jungle, dystopian future) melts away and some elemental human dilemmas begin to declare themselves.

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Like a row of paper-clips obeying the magnet's call, the same ill-assorted characters stumble forward to engage in the same grim attritional wars. It is a mark of Edric's skill that his off-the-peg plots and identikit situations fade into insignificance when set against the psychological realism that attends their working out.

Set in a war-torn London desperate for VE Day, The Monster's Lament has three main points of focus. One is HMP Pentonville, where a 19-year-old murderer named Peter Tait calmly awaits the hangman's noose. A second is the seedy Earls Court tenement inhabited by the anti-hero of the title: the ageing occultist Aleister Crowley, keen to secure his (literal) immortality via ritual interference with Tait's departure from the planet. A third is an equally seedy Soho club where gangsters plot their own transit in a volatile post-war world.

As ever in Edric-land, everything is deviously connected. Tait's guilt hangs on the disappearance of a mysterious "fourth man" from the crime scene. Frankie Doll, sharp-eyed bag-carrier of Soho kingpin Tommy Fowler, is planning his escape, while "working girl" Ruby, an avid student of the Crowley legend, is paying private visits to the Mage's lair.

Two other key features of Edric-land are a) the absence of very much period detail; and b) how little this seems to matter. Here a certain amount of research seems to have been done into V2 flying bombs, and the slang phrases of the day ring true. All this, though, pales before the novel's main achievement, which is its succession of rapt, nervy little exchanges between people who don't really like each other. Once again Edric has defied the limitations with which his novels crawl to produce a wonderfully edgy piece of war-time noir.

DJ Taylor's new novel, 'The Windsor Faction', is published in September

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