BOOK REVIEW / Motorway madness: 'The Crow Road' - Iain Banks: Scribners, 15.99 pounds

IAIN BANK's new novel, The Crow Road, is an endlessly frustrated detective story. Along a path of ultimately misleading clues, the plot strews more signposts than you see on spaghetti junction. Is the man in the German Jacuzzi genuine? Who is sending home the mysterious matchboxes? You will probably take your wildest wrong turning, though, when you reach page 126, where Banks unpacks the mystery of the novel's title.

The narrator, Prentice McHoan - a young Scottish youth on the trail of love, life and a missing relative - has gone to meet an important witness. In the course of the encounter he asks a woman if she has ever heard Grandma Margo use the saying: ' 'Away the Crow Road' . . . It meant dying; being dead. 'Aye, he's away the crow road,' meant 'He's dead.' '

So is that what it's all about, this rambling Scottish saga of young men and their fathers, of disaffection and affection? Is it about confronting eternal darkness, pondering the great unknown? This may be true up to a point, but it doesn't really get to the book's heart. The emphasis falls less frequently on the mystical 'Crow Road' than it does on the altogether less mystical dual carriageway between Dumbarton and Alexandria. Or on the Glasgow road, for that matter. Or the motorway to London. Prentice may flirt with grief and girls, but he - and Iain Banks with him - has fallen completely for cars.

This is a long book and a tangled one, with a disjointed time scheme. It makes unexpected gear-changes and takes on board the occasional backseat driver (Prentice's father takes over the narrative from time to time). What is consistent in it, though, is provided by the smell of burning rubber. Most of the major events occur in or around a motorised vehicle.

Take the romantic interest: Verity, the love of Prentice's life, was born in her parents Rover 3.5, seduces his brother on the top of a Range Rover and goes off with him in a soft-top XR3i.

Or take the detective-story thread: Prentice's search for his peripatetic uncle is punctuated by a series of crashes - the school friend who collides with a cement rubbish bin, the aunt who dies on the drive home from a party, the family doctor who skids his green Rover 216 into the Urvill's Bentley Eight (an incident of particular note to Prentice: ' 'I thought he had an Orion,' I said').

You can even chart Prentice's emotional development by his relationship with various sets of wheels. There's the 'steady, growling' family Volvo of his childhood; the Lagonda Rapide Saloon, tarpaulined in his grandmother's garage, in which he lost his virginity ('the cracked and creaking, buttoned and fragrant upholstery . . .'); his best friend's 'battered, motley-panelled 2CV'), the sensible VW Golf he buys after the death of his father; and the burgundy Bentley Eight, 'showroom- clean, unlived in'. He has inherited it in a terrible practical joke, and decides that it 'wasn't really me'.

Does all this drive you mad? It seems almost fetishistic, this detailed obsession with traffic, and the insistence on marques and models is irritating when it distracts from the thrust of the plot. But it is typical of the narrator. Prentice's late-teenage mind is filled with Lloyd Cole and girls' perfume, with memories of The Clangers, with drink and cigarettes and being rude in Indian restaurants. He never quite gets round to ringing his parents (his row with his father runs through the book); and he doesn't notice romantic attachment tangling under his nose. He's self-obsessed and selfish, and sometimes charming. Yet he is the only character in The Crow Road who has weight behind him; the others border on cliche - the cranky grandmother, the patient mother, the wicked uncle.

With The Crow Road, Banks is clearly keen to turn away from the sharp violence of his earlier novels and spend time with one person. To an extent he succeeds. The Crow Road is tight with detail and close observation and creates a strong sense of a particular period of growing up. It is a shame Banks cannot leave it at that. But at the end, although the novel's mystery is by this stage crying out to be left unsolved, he draws together Prentice's disparate experiences in a hefty, melodramatic conclusion. As Prentice could have told him, to travel is generally better than to arrive.

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