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Reading for pleasure

12 November 18

This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor

by Tom Johnston, Paul Doyle (review editor: David J Dickson)

It Can't Happen Here

Sinclair Lewis (Penguin: £8.99)

I had never previously read any of Sinclair Lewis’s work. Given that he died in 1951, I was a little puzzled as to why I received one of his novels to review. Then I read the cover notes. Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip is fighting for the presidency of the United States. A man who, when caught out in one lie, promptly replaces it with a bigger one: a man who runs on an anti-immigrant ticket: a man who promises to make America great. Bells are no doubt ringing. This unlikely candidate wins, the out of favour Franklin D Roosevelt having been cast aside.

On election, pledging his allegiance to the “League of Forgotten Men” (which he promptly disbands, along with the Democratic Party which nominated him) he promises an income of $5,000 to each family, systematic withdrawal of rights from Negros and Jews, eradication of Communism, and abolishing votes for women. And for good measure he eradicates the right of the Supreme Court to rule upon any edict of the President himself, for which he will no longer require the support of Congress. A new country-wide militia is formed, its members, the Minute Men, having wide powers to maintain the rule of the President’s law.

Our central character is Doremus Jessup, a middle aged newspaper editor from Fort Beulah, Vermont, “a town of perhaps ten thousand souls inhabiting about twenty thousand bodies; the proportion of soul possession may be too high”. It will be obvious that Lewis’s target is Hitler’s Germany, rather than Trump’s White House. The first half of the book is lighter in tone, some very good satire, and playful digs at fellow authors of the period. Soon, however, it darkens as horribly familiar consequences ensue. Show trials, summary executions and concentration camps become common. The media are suppressed. Jessup plays the role one would expect of a liberal but dogged newspaper man. Following his fortunes, we fear for him, right to the end.

The terrifying thing is that this novel was written in 1935. Foreboding and frighteningly true to a history which had yet to be written.

Lethal White

Robert Galbraith (Sphere: £20)

This is the fourth Cormoran Strike novel by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling). At a whopping 647 pages, it is the longest; it is also by some distance the best so far. Those who were fortunate enough, a generation ago, to await the new Horace Rumpole book with keen anticipation may recall how the written character moulded ever more seamlessly with the Leo McKern portrayal on TV. The same thing is happening here.

Rowling herself admitted in a recent interview that the performances of Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger as the two leading characters had made her job a little easier. That’s just as well, as the plot line is ferociously complex. I enjoyed the previous three, but found the premise behind one of them just too improbable for words. In this outing, there are intertwined Strike’s involvement with a politician who is being blackmailed, a distressed and psychotic youth who believes he witnessed a murder in his childhood, and the family of a suicide who refuse to believe their father took his own life.

We find ourselves everywhere from anti-establishment marches to gentlemen’s clubs, from seedy Camden shops to West End restaurants. Rowling’s skill as a writer is ever more refined. A huge amount of work went into the early books to create Strike’s complicated back story. The sense of the outsider is carefully maintained (although perhaps at odds with the fact that his girlfriends always seem to be extremely beautiful). The tension between Robin Ellacott and Matthew Cunliffe continues. Regular readers may recall that matrimony has been on the cards for some time – learn how the relationship unfolds. A large cast of supporting characters is carefully managed and developed, as is the teasing way in which the plot is unfolded. The dénouement of such a long story can often be an anti-climax. Not here, where it is handled with skill and additional drama.

Not only is this the best Cormoran Strike novel yet, it is as good a detective story as you are likely to read all year.

The Impostor

Javier Cercas (Maclehose Press: £16)

Enric Marco is famous in Spain. He became a public figure after his claims to have been a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps in World War II and also to have been a clandestine anti-Francoist revolutionary were believed. He was awarded the Creu de Sant Jordi by the Catalan government in 2001 and wrote a book on his experiences. For years, Marco had toured schools giving talks on his traumatic and heroic experiences, often reducing his audiences to tears.

In 2005 he admitted his claims were false and returned his medal, after his deception was revealed by university researcher Benito Bermejo.

This is the story of a “mediocre” car mechanic who charmed his way to international fame because he could tell a good story. Marco carefully synchronised his personal lies with Spain’s historical truth, because he understood that “he who controls the past, controls the present and the future”.

In this sophisticated book, novelist Javier Cercas questions his own role in telling this spectacular charlatan’s true story. Cercas wrangles with his career as a novelist, arguing that writing fiction is an act of deception, but concludes that the Quixote-like Marco takes fiction and tries to make it reality, while the novelist does the opposite.

Although presented as a novel, it is actually a rigorous study of Marco’s life, a study of the art of deception and a study of the nature of conformity. Cercas searches for fragments of truth in Marco’s invented life. He interviews Marco for hours over many days (Marco wanted to co-operate!) and talks to anyone who knew the man. He discovers more than just the publicly known fabrications.

Cercas tries to understand the nature of Marco’s narcissism. He tells us his book is a “novel without fiction”, drawing on the tradition of the non-fiction novel. Cercas raises philosophical questions about the very nature of truth and lies.

The author convinces Marco finally to own up to many years of lies and deceptions. Then, anticipating another arrogant, exculpatory, monologue, Cercas reveals more facts to the man who lived a fiction. Marco cannot take any more truth. He puts his head in his hands and pleads “Please, leave me something.” Marco’s life is built on fiction; without his deceptions, he is nothing.

At times repetitive, at times intense, this book is hard to categorise. The author says it is a non-fiction novel. In part, it reads like investigative journalism; in part, it reads like a philosophical essay. Overall, this is a detailed study of a complex personality and an investigation into dishonesty as part of human nature.

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