Countryside capers

Headlong

Michael Frayn <em>Faber & Faber, 395pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0571200516

Can a master playwright and skilled columnist also produce a successful novel? Can the writer of the award-winning theatrical hits Noises Off and Copenhagen transfer his peculiar talents to another genre? Michael Frayn's first novel in seven years emphatically proves that he can.

Headlong is an intoxicating blend of farce and social comedy - a sustained history lesson on the Spanish conquest of the Netherlands and the 16th-century Dutch landscape painter Pieter Bruegel, and a study of the frailties of the human heart. The plot centres around Martin Clay, our confessional narrator and a philosophy lecturer with an interest in art history, his art historian wife and their baby daughter, Tilda. Clay is struggling to complete a book. To limit distractions, the family decamp to their country cottage, where they are unexpectedly invited to dinner by a local landowner, Tony Churt, and his much younger second wife - an ideal platform for Frayn to satirise the different but related pretensions of urban intellectuals and rural gentry.

After dinner the reason for the invitation becomes clear: Churt, down on his luck, is searching for advice on how to sell some old family paintings. Clay decides to bluff his way through, until his attention is caught by a 16th-century Dutch landscape being used as a fire screen. Most of us have little difficulty making fools of ourselves, given the right carrot, and Clay is no exception; he believes it to be a long-lost Bruegel. His discovery leads him and the reader on a fascinating journey through art galleries and libraries as he attempts to authenticate the painting - and steal it from his host. What follows is a series of farcical episodes in which Frayn shows his virtuoso handling of character and a keen grasp of comic timing as Clay - whose actions are jolted forward more by the interaction of his imaginary musings with external events than by his own volition - becomes embroiled with Churt's wife in his attempts to steal the painting. The action culminates in a frantic, high-speed night-time chase through dark country roads. Clay's five days that shook the world become, in the hands of Frayn, a small jewel of comic shine.