David Quantick has had a long and very successful career as a writer. He started on the NME during its 1980s heyday, alongside Danny Baker and Paul Morley, before moving into comedy writing for Spitting Image, The Day Today, Smack the Pony, Brass Eye and The Thick of It. In recent years, he has been part of the Emmy-winning team on Veep, written a drama, Snodgrass, for Sky and an e-book called Sparks. Now he has written a novel.
The Mule is a comedy thriller – its tagline is "Murder. Conspiracy. Ineptitude" – and is interesting for a few reasons, not least that it is a novel about made-up novels and it is published by Unbound, the crowd-funding platform. At the back are the names of fans – among them Elisabeth Murdoch, Jonathan Coe, Jesse Armstrong, Martin Creed, Mary Anne Hobbs and Konnie Huq – who pledged varying amounts from £10 for an e-copy to £250 for the honour of naming a character.
I found that last one a bit disappointing because, along with the made-up book titles, the character names are one of the best things about The Mule. There's a pompous fantasy writer called Euros Frant, author of The Chronicle of Imaginary Wordlets; there's the snootily reclusive AJL Ferber, whose impenetrable bestsellers are called Earth Thou Sluggard and There is No Mountain, a pair of detectives called Quigley and Chick and, possibly my favourite, a crime writer called Moîre Herone. And then there's Jacky, the book's narrator-hero, also known to his university pals as "The Mule", though he's stubbornly sure that he doesn't know why. Jacky is the unfortunate, plodding translator of the novels named above.
One night he meets a beautiful girl in a dingy bar – "She stood out… like a pearl in an ashtray" – who befriends him, then shows him a book which is written in an unintelligible, untranslateable language and, terrifyingly, features photographs of her murdered body. When she disappears, leaving him only with a blurred photocopy and two detectives on his tail, he finds himself at the heart of an international literary conspiracy, which takes him from Paris to London on a harebrained mission that unfolds like The Da Vinci Code, only with a sense of humour and better grammar.
There is a quite compelling mystery at the heart of The Mule but Quantick's real achievement is that he has written not one, but three books – the novel itself and also the fictional works of fiction around which The Mule revolves – a fantasy translation of Alice Through the Looking Glass, which features words like "la furcheuxne" and "Iiiiiiiiii-i-i" and the mysterious Von Fremdenplatz, a six-part series of beautifully illustrated books which appeared from nowhere, have no author and yet people seem willing to kill for them.
Quantick's comic pedigree shines in his imaginative wordplay – made-up words like "flupe" dot the text – and the insufferable Frant, who is a pitch-perfect irritant to the hero, Jacky. The latter's pedantic narration brings to mind a grown-up Adrian Mole – "She had a nice voice. I'm sorry if that's not very evocative and I should have said 'She had a voice like hot cream,' or something but I don't care for overcooked phrases (they're the bane of my professional life), and besides, she did have a nice voice."
It's hypnotic in its way but occasionally one longs for a change of pace, something that might give this mystery wrapped inside an in-joke a bit of heart. At just 263 pages, The Mule should move along more briskly than it does.
Unbound, £14.99. Order at £12.99 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop
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