The Wisdom of Crocodiles, by Paul Hoffman

A Bulgarian vampire in East Anglia

By Nicholas Royle
Monday 30 December 2013 03:51
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Originally published in a limited edition by literary agent Richard Gollner, Paul Hoffman's hugely ambitious novel has already prompted one feature film (The Wisdom of Crocodiles, starring Jude Law and Timothy Spall) and is set to spawn not only another movie but also a drama series. That the latter, a six-parter for the BBC, is based on only "part" of chapter 14 is an indication of the richness and epic sweep of this work. But is it actually any good? Fortunately, yes. It's very good indeed.

Stress researcher Steven Grlscz, who jokes that shortages were so bad in Bulgaria you had to queue for vowels, is seeing waitress Maria Vaughan when she goes missing. If only he'd known her godfather was George Winnicot, head of the anti-terrorist squad, he might not have bitten a hole in her neck, drained her body of blood and dumped it in the North Sea.

Winnicot, about to swop the fight against terrorism for tussles with tax-dodgers as head of the Fraud Secretariat, gets the Met moving on Maria's disappearance. Enter dogged but kindly Inspector Geoff Healey, separated from his wife Jane, who, unbeknown to him, has discovered his secret porn stash and, in bewilderment, takes an accounting job in a second-hand bookshop that sells mucky magazines out of the basement. Winnicot, meanwhile, undergoes hypnotherapy to discover the meaning of the voices in his head, and computer whizz Anne Levels is working on perfecting her artificial intelligence programme.

If you find it hard to believe that the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the world's hardest crossword clue could also somehow fit into this lot, you underestimate Hoffman's prestidigitative narrative skills. Not only does he keep a staggering number of balls in the air without dropping one, but he manages to function on several different levels, combining elements of genre (vampires, police investigations, alien-invasion theories) with the seriousness demanded of the novel of ideas.

What's more, he does it with an astonishing confidence in his material and his ability to exercise control over it. "In gripping yarns the fear is that the revelation won't be right – the last page missing or a lack of skill in writing an ending that astounds," we read as the endgame approaches. Hoffman doesn't seem to have an ounce of doubt that he will pull it off, which he duly does, dovetailing all the strands in ways that are surprising rather than too neat.

The book is not without a few errors. Grlscz's flat changes from number nine to six within a few lines. Diss, it is implied, is by the sea, which it is not. And street names are copied inaccurately out of the A-Z.

To err is human, even if Hoffman's authorial omniscience seems almost divine. His insights into some of the female characters are among the novel's most valuable details. And the chapter about the childhood of Fraud Secretariat deputy director Michael McCarthy, spent watching his father jump out of aircraft (Hoffman's father was a sports parachutist), is a masterpiece.

The reviewer's latest novel is 'The Director's Cut' (Abacus)

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