Book review: The thrilling world of insurance

ARMADILLO by William Boyd Hamish Hamilton pounds 16.99

Robert Hanks
Sunday 01 March 1998 00:02 GMT

THE INSURANCE business has produced its share of great writers - Kafka and Wallace Stevens, for a start - but so far it has failed to provide literature with any great characters. The closest have been George Bowling in Orwell's Coming Up for Air and Walter Neff in James M Cain's Double Indemnity; now there is Lorimer Black, the loss- adjuster hero of William Boyd's seventh novel.

What all these insurance men have in common is a life without risk and without glamour. But whereas George Bowling and Walter Neff both want to break free of their cocoons (in each case with unhappy results), Boyd charts Black's struggle to stay curled up in his armour - like an armadillo - even as circumstances peel it away. At the start of the novel, Lorimer is shown to be enviably insulated from most of life's troubles: youngish, highly paid, sexually attractive. It rapidly becomes clear how far the need to be insulated has come to dominate his life. He has given himself a new name and a new background, found himself a niche in the most secure business he can think of, bought a spare house to use as a bolt-hole should need arise. His obsession with safety even manifests itself in his hobby, collecting antique helmets. Just in case the reader fails to grasp the theme, the organisation he works for is called Fortress Sure, and the offices are located by the Barbican.

It's ironic, given the security blanket he has wrapped round his own life, that Lorimer's job is based on what his boss, a philosopher-thug called Hogg, describes as "the disturbance of anticipation". Most people expect that insurance will insulate them from risk; the loss-adjuster's job is to decide whether their claim is fair, and if possible to cajole them into accepting a smaller settlement than they imagine they are entitled to. As the novel progresses, Lorimer's own anticipations are disturbed, his defences stripped away, following his investigation of an apparently fraudulent claim. Death threats, violence, unwanted friendship, accusations from the paranoid Hogg ensue; at the same time, his emotional armour is pierced by the death of his father and an uncontrollable passion for a woman glimpsed in the back of a taxi. As Lorimer loses control, there is no answering wildness in the narrative: the promise that some extravagance of fate is going to overtake our hero is never fulfilled. This is not so much a new Bonfire of the Vanities, as burning some old leaves in the back garden.

Part of the problem is that Boyd is too clear about what he wants to do. At times the book seems schematic, Lorimer's quirks contrived - the interest in antique helmets, for instance, or the fact that he suffers dreadful insomnia, regularly attending a clinic specialising in sleep disorders (it's unfortunate for Boyd that Jonathan Coe got there first with his novel The House of Sleep). Some of the names leave a self-consciously literary aftertaste: Lorimer's beloved is stuck with the unfortunate handle Flavia Malinverno, a plausibly appalling upper-class twit has the rather too recherche label Torquil Helvoir-Jayne.

You get the impression that Boyd simply likes Lorimer too much to allow anything too dire to happen to him, or to let him do anything too nasty. All his sins are ones of omission, small failures of courage, nothing that might prevent the reader identifying with him.

Transparency and compassion are not the worst faults in the world, though, and Armadillo has many answering virtues. Traversing London, the scene for virtually the entire book, Boyd barely puts a foot wrong - the flat, blowy wastes of Silvertown, pretentious city wine bars, the prosperous squalor of Pimlico are all cleanly caught. And the grotesques whom Lorimer encounters - a psychopathic flower-seller, his own mini-cab driving brother - make up in realism for what they occasionally lack in sheer imaginative life.

In Armadillo, Boyd signals some big ambitions, most of which he doesn't achieve. But he does bring off - once again - the smaller aim of producing a book that is a pleasure to read. If that's failure, do we really need success?

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