Novel of the week


John Preston <em>Doubleday, 429pp, £12.99</em>

John Buchan called his romantic adventure novels "shockers" because "the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible". Not only that, they are shockingly simple to construct. "Begin by fixing on one or two facts which have no sort of obvious connection," explains Dr Greenslade in The Three Hostages, then simply "invent a connection". The reader will be "puzzled and intrigued, and, if the story is well arranged, finally satisfied". What could be easier?

John Preston's second novel develops this awareness of the spurious complexity of the genre by adding a telling layer, pastiche. He wants to stick to the formula and offer a compelling story while distancing himself from its risible conventions. As a result the book's 39 chapters read as both a paean to, and a parody of, Buchan's style.

It is 1980s Fleet Street, a period of transition in which people and ideals can go missing. A body is found in the Thames. Surely, we think, it's the journalist Scaife (also a character in Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps), who hasn't been seen for a while. But of course it's not. Enter the new Richard Hannay, Hugh Bryne, a disillusioned hack with "dreadful romantic yearnings", who guides the reader around the familiar "shocker" terrain of graveyards and decrepit boarding houses to reveal a convoluted plot of assumed identities and deaths.

On one level, it seems as though Preston, while trying to poke fun at Buchan, can't actually master his influence. The banter between the male journalists, for example, is often clumsy and anachronistic. "Lately I seem to have lost all my mirth," declares Bryne, which sounds more like something Hannay would say. Their attitudes are likewise outmoded; women are evaluated in terms of legs and thighs. OK, it's an almost exclusively male environment and they have names like Cliff and Julian, but do they really have to behave as if it's 1935?

As if to counter this, the author brings in a series of 1980s news items. Salmonella's here; so, too, ferocious unmuzzled dogs. You can imagine the Post-Its all over the plot-planner: "must mention mobile phones". This tension, between Buchan's era and the 1980s, between an older London and a modern, changing one, is more effectively signalled by the epigraphs at the beginning of each of the novel's four parts. They allude to the dark and insalubrious districts of the capital or to the docks before the redevelopment.

While there is a shrewd management of plot and tone and the narrative does canter along, there are far too many distractions. Poor metaphors and similes will always trip the reader. Hugh "felt as if all his thoughts and feelings, even his organs, hung dangling before her gaze"; and, after smoking a joint with a friend, "the two of them seemed to be floating in soup". What? Like croutons?

It's back in the etiolated realm of dank flats and mortuaries that Ink is more convincing. A simple sense of the macabre pervades. The middle section, following the disappearance of a yachtsman, is also deftly controlled, and there's a wonderful rule at the newspaper: those who fail to meet their deadlines are sent to the basement to work on the Queen Mother's obituary.

Preston's first novel was deemed by one critic to be "half V S Pritchett, half Joe Orton". The book's title, Ghosting, acknowledges the author's intentions - he is ghosting for the greats. With its themes of identity and authorship, Ink follows the same idea, only here he is standing in for Buchan. Despite being compliant with the genre in favouring incidental detail over insight and a pacy plot over quality of prose, the novel often strays outside the borders of the possible and doesn't have the strength of writing to turn this to its advantage. An unsuccessful parody, unsure of the dynamic between celebrating and subverting the original, can easily resemble a hollow imitation. As Dr Greenslade concludes of the "shocker": "It's not ingenious enough . . . it doesn't take account of the infernal complexity of life." And you wouldn't want to put it any better than that.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Eating people is wrong