Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
Murder on the Second Tee
Ian Simpson (Matador: £7.99; e-book £2.49)
Ian Simpson has written a superb read, following on the success of his first book, Murder on Page One. The characters are more strongly defined in this book; the central character, DI Flick Fortune, comes into her own and, despite self doubt, perseveres until the dastardly crimes are solved. The author weaves together two strong story lines which bring Fortune and her former boss, Inspector No, back together – not quite adversaries, but No in the private sector and continuing his underhand ways.
The directors of the niche Bucephalus Bank are meeting in a St Andrews hotel, when one of them is found murdered on the second tee. Detective Sergeant Bagawath Chandavarkar (Baggo), is working undercover investigating a multi-million pound money laundering scam. The respectable façade of the bank hides skulduggery and criminality in unexpected quarters, and the author clearly has fun exposing and developing the bankers' characters. St Andrews is defined to a tee, the author drawing on his childhood home town. This is a rollicking read.
Jonathan Coe (Penguin: £8.99; e-book £4.31)
Jonathan Coe, probably best known for the 70s-set The Rotters’ Club, its contemporary sequel The Closed Circle, and the state-of-the-Thatcherite-nation What A Carve Up!, has gone a little further back in time with Expo 58, set at Belgium’s World’s Fair of 1958, the first such event after the end of World War II. (Its symbolic building, the Atomium, still stands.)
Thomas Foley, a mid-ranking civil servant in his early 30s, and in a marriage he might tentatively have started to regret, is offered the opportunity by his employers to escape the Sunday roasts and corn plasters of 1950s Britain for six months, in order to run “The Britannia”, the English pub which will be the centerpiece of the UK pavilion. Foley accepts, heads to Brussels, and discovers a Europe in uneasy transition between armed war and Cold War, with the USSR and USA jockeying for influence and secrets. And the expansion of Foley’s political horizons goes hand in hand with an emotional awakening, as he considers a dalliance with Fair hostess Anneke, while being unwillingly dragged into an investigation of international espionage which might, or might not, be going on at the Fair.
Coe has carefully crafted a hugely entertaining variation on the spy novel: the plotting is adroit, while avoiding unnecessary elaboration; the period setting is plausibly drawn; and Foley himself is an attractive yet enigmatic protagonist. Deceptively light of touch and genuinely amusing, but with an intelligence and moral seriousness at its core – and, particularly in its final chapters, surprisingly moving – Expo 58 is recommended.
Murray Bail (MacLehose: £8.99; e-book £3.96)
Middle-aged inventor Frank Delage is returning home to Sydney from Vienna, where he has been trying to find buyers for the piano he has just invented. He has found the music glitterati resistant to new ideas, but has had the luck to fall in with the aristocratic Von Schalla family who give him old world patronage during his stay. Unfortunately, they also envelop him in a love triangle which comes to a head towards the end of his voyage home.
The journey on the container ship is slow, and the pace of this novella mirrors that, although there are moments of frenzy when Bail describes the activity in ports.
All in all, this is a beautifully written novella, full of vivid imagery and careful contemplation of people and life. It has an oddly dated feel, but this feels appropriate to the subject matter. My only real objection to The Voyage – petty though this may be – was my difficulty in reading the novella when commuting, as the story has no real breaks, and there are no chapters, or in many places paragraphs, at which to stop.