A good gossip
Hugo Rifkind Canongate, 320pp, £9.99
Hats off, as we newspaper diarists say, to Hugo Rifkind. He has written a page-turning novel about gossip columnists. Diary hacks are not widely considered the most literary breed of journalist, so it is no surprise that Rifkind's book is decidedly lightweight. There are no profun dities about the human condition, no lines of luminous prose, not even many reflections on the state of the nation. The author mainly confines himself to London's swinging scene, celeb rity parties and the fierce jealousies that are apt to flare up in newspaper offices.
But Rifkind, like his protagonist, the hapless columnist Macaulay Lewis, lays no claim to the highbrow. He has concentrated his energies on writing a simple - if slightly fantastic - whodunnit. The plot goes something like this: celebrities across London are attracting the unwelcome attentions of a burglar; Lewis sets out to uncover his identity and, in so doing, make his reputation as a journalist; everyone gets the wrong idea and assumes the journalist is the criminal; he proves his innocence and discovers who is guilty, but fails to find fame or fortune and ends up walking through a blustery Scotland, having a bonding moment with his father.
Along the way, Rifkind works in a number of funny scenes and displays a great ear for dialogue. His characters talk amusingly at cross-purposes, and he has a knack for physical description. He's also very good on contemporary celebrities - as the paragraphs that are nothing but lists of names demonstrate.
There is an attractive element of high camp in this novel, but Rifkind's story also has a more serious side. From time to time the protagonist's family crops up, and with it come questions of race, Scottish and Jewish integration, and how Londoners perceive themselves. Individually these are interesting subjects; but they sit rather uncomfortably with the rest of the novel.
There are implausibilities, too, in Rifkind's portrayal of office life and of the conduct of journalists at celebrity parties. Yet he makes no secret of the fact that this is a book that indulges its characters' fantasies - indeed, is largely built around them. Expectations of realism should be banished as we enjoy this fast-paced and often witty glimpse through the windows of celebrity London, with all its absurdities, sleaze and hangers-on.
Oliver Marre is editor of the Observer's Pendennis column