Killing time

E Jane Dickson learns about the hangman's soul: A Perfect Execution by Tim Binding, Picador, pounds 15.99
The question at the heart of Tim Binding's second novel is: "What kind of person would want to be a hangman?"

Jeremiah Bembo, the terrible hero of A Perfect Execution, comes from "infected" stock, an itinerant family of showmen. His grandfather was "The Great Bembo", a Victorian Punch-and-Judy man; his cousin is an end- of-the-pier comedian. Jeremiah has "settled" as a market gardener, but, as his Uncle Jonas tells him: "Once you become a man, Bembo biology takes over." As Her Majesty's Executioner, Jeremiah, under his "stage name" of Solomon Straw ("Solomon for judgement, straw for human frailty"), carries on the family tradition of playing to the crowd.

Jeremiah fights hard against his inheritance. It is not a bid for fame but a complicated conscientiousness that leads him to take up the hangman's noose. As a young man, he witnesses a captured German airman being taunted and mutilated by an English lynch mob. Wounded by shrapnel from the German's exploded plane, "Jem" is powerless to prevent the crowd's revenge. Later, as Jem recovers in hospital, his retarded friend, Loopy, is hanged for a crime he was unlikely to have commited. Haunted by these two helpless, friendless deaths, Jem finds his vocation. As hangman, he will kill men kindly; his efficiency will be a last, friendly office.

"And I will not harm them," he tells himself in the exaltation of his calling. "I will make their journey as peaceful as possible. Into my hands they will be received, and I will treat them gently, and without fear or favour."

Binding has not shirked his research, and the meticulous, almost obsessive detailing of procedure in the execution scenes are properly unsettling. By the end of the book, the least retentive reader must have a fair idea of how to hang a man and the knowledge weighs like a dirty secret you would rather not have been told.

And yet the author conjures a kind of serenity in the execution chamber that is conspicuously lacking in the outside world. Aylesbury in 1963 is a stew of small-town venality, a kind of Ealing comedy gone horribly wrong, with secretaries under siege from lecherous bosses, wives tempted by travelling salesmen and the constant, pawing desperation for "a bit of hows-your-father". Billy Baxter, a comedian in Max Miller mode (catchphrase: "I'm a fancy man, I am") is a luridly unpleasant creation, defined by an endless stream of double entendre that gets darker and darker as the story progresses.

A Perfect Execution is essentially a murder mystery, mined with moral fables. Binding employs a curiously overlapping flashback technique, which is perhaps better suited to the screen than to a novel, and can be heavy- handed with the imagery. Solomon Straw's glass eye, the one he turns on his victims' past lives, is a metaphor too far.

However, the reader's desire to know the truth of Solomon Straw's last case, the one that makes him hang up his rope for good, overrides literary quibbles. At times, the vicious sexuality which propels the book becomes positively Jacobean in its ferocity. The central murder takes place in the car of a courting couple: "Colin lay dead in the front and now an unknown tongue began to creep over hers. It moved cautiously, like a young worm in a fresh corpse, working its way into the still, warm flesh."

Jeremiah, too, finds his care for the condemned spilling over into necrophiliac desire and fantasies. The odour of the charnel hangs over the narrative like napalm, and even when the whodunnit plot finally, horribly, explodes there is no redemption. In a scary postscript, the literary equivalent of the hand coming out of the grave in Carrie, the hanged man's mother is seen hanging over the crib of Jeremiah's baby son with a gift.

In Binding's scheme, the kindness of strangers is not to be relied upon any more than the protection of parents. Alone in an unkind world, the best we can hope for is the hangman's blessing.