It's difficult to discuss this book without introducing spoilers, so I'd better issue a big SPOILER ALERT now. I made "study notes" because I'm not good with names and I expected many cross-refereences.
It's sub-titled "A Mystery". It takes a while to discover what the mystery is. At the start in the present tense we meet the main character, Paul Kinder, who's a creative writing tutor. His wife is/was Veronica. They have/had twins. In the first few pages themes emerge -
- Meticulous descriptions of offices, suburban car journeys, etc. Books in particular (their smells and cover designs) attract attention. He's running a course on first novels, but students have trouble finding the books (including his - "Rites" under the name "Paul Taylor"), some of which the authors have suppressed.
- Uncertainties about what's real and what's in writers' imaginations. Real people (Richard Madely, Elizabeth Baines) are mentioned.
- An interest in planes near airports, and people who work with planes
- Binary decisions - "Either I stay or I leave" (p.8), "Either I will accept or I won't" (p.18)
- Paul is rather predatory with females. Even his students aren't safe.
Suspense is maintained. Any object could be a Chekovian gun. With stand-alone paragraphs like
- "There is nothing else on the desk, no clutter" (p.13).
- "I turn right into Ringway Road and then right again into the restaurant's own small car park, which I notice has a lockable gate currently standing open" (p.79)
it's tempting to think the details will be significant. He has names for the people he sees in the neighbourhood, as if they might be templates for fictional character. From his study he thinks he sees a tramp (aka Overcoat Man) being attacked, knocked unconscious. He goes out to check, finds the body, leaves it before confirming that the tramp's dead.
He's a newcomer to the neighbourhood. A guy called Lewis tries to befriend him. Paul discovers that under the name "Lewis Harris" Lewis wrote a novel called "Straight to Video".
On p.26 a new story begins, about Ray and Flynn. After an interruption the story's continued on p.36. Raymond Cross is in the RAF in Zanzibar. When this storyline is continued again on p.51 we learn that Ray married a bingo caller, Victoria. They had a baby. Victoria died as a result of the birth, that's why Ray had fled the country. We pick up the story again on p.63. Ray's flying with a show-off, Dunstan, who's trying to impress 2 nurses, Frankie (who resembles Victoria) and Joan. Flying too low, Dunstan kills Flynn.
Meanwhile we learn that Paul has affairs, that noisy, low flying planes go overload at times of strong (sexual) emotion, that both he and Lewis had/have 2 children and were cuckolded by a pilot, Trevor. He finds an old, red remote controlled plane in the next garden. Parts are buried in his garden.
On p.111 we discover that the Zanzibar story has been submitted to Paul by Grace, one of his students. His analysis of it is useful. The story's continued on p.113. Ray leaves the RAF. There's a court case. His evidence condemns Dunstan. Ray's parents adopt his child, Nicholas. Ray goes to London to start a new life.
I didn't find section 3 ("The Sniper") interesting in itself. Ray becomes a gay poet. Nicholas sees him more often when he reads languages at Queen Mary College, London (we're at p.195 now). Nicholas marries Liz. During pregnancy Liz gets an infection, loses the child and is unable to conceive again. When Ray dies of AIDS, (on April 19, 1992; his posthumous collection was entitled 'The Sniper') they inherit his flat. They decide to adopt a 4 year-old called Johnny.
We learn that in the first year or 2 of his marriage, Paul had a novel published. He had a brief affair that destroyed his marriage. Veronica had a brief revenge affair with Trevor, who was found dead in a locked room, apparently suicide. On the final day of the divorce case Paul drove off with the twins (Jonathan and Laura), trying to kill them and himself by carbon monoxide poisoning
Section 4 of the book (p.221) is "Lumb Bank". Paul and his students are at a residency. The guest writer will be Lewis, who never turns up. Paul, on p.238, reads from a piece which could easily be this book. Grace reads a story out. From this and Paul's memories we learn that Laura died, but Jonathan and Paul survived. Paul was imprisoned in the same prison that Shipman was (Shipman was Ray's mother's final doctor). In prison he tells a story about the death of his twins that's much like the story Lewis told about his own family. His son Jonathan was the adopted Johnny. In his late teens he decided to change gender and become ... Grace.
Paul flees before Grace finishes her reading. For a while the book's in the future tense, Paul thinking through possible conclusions. He imagines going to the States, telling Siri Hustvedt that "I'm working on a novel but that it's taken a funny turn and is threatening to fall apart. It's beginning to remind me, I'll tell her, of a first novel by David Pirie called Mystery Story, which held my attention all the way through and remained plausible, indeed strangely compelling, spellbinding in fact, and then right near the end the action shifted to America and it just seemed to go off-key somehow. Pirie must have thought so himself, too, because twenty-one years later he published another novel and on the jacket it said, This is his first novel" (p.273)
At p.281 he returns to the present. He decides to check the dead body again. It's already moved once. He's already suspected that Grace was amongst the killers. He finds it, tries to hide it better. He meets Grace in Lewis's empty house, discovers that Lewis never existed. At the end he decides to go to the dead body - "when I get there I will call the police and I will wait there until they arrive and then I will go with them" (p.293). Perhaps the dead body (if there is one) represents the past he's been trying to hide.
I liked the book, though I wouldn't recommend it to everyone. An e-version of the book would have made reading/re-reading easier. One can find the source material for several of the fictions recounted in the book (I presume the model plane is something to do with Lewis's story). Nearly everything's eventually explained - the interest in suicides; why the cat's called Cleo (because of a Pyramid interest, I guess) - though even in retrospect I don't know why we're told on p.197 about the plot of The Sniper's title poem. Throughout there's more than enough to conventionally enjoy - little things like "At that moment the train hit a set of points and Nicholas didn't hear what his father had said. It was a shame because he had a sense it had been something his father had been building up to, but, partly because of that, it didn't seem appropriate to ask him to repeat it" (p.190).