Losses adjusted

18 03 2017

Armadillo by William Boyd


Lorimer Black may suffer from a serious sleep disorder and an obsession with the labyrinths of the British class system, but  Armadillo’s peculiar protagonist is the star insurance adjuster of London’s Fortress Sure PLC, unaffectionately known as “the Fort”. At the very start of William Boyd’s noirish 7th novel, however, things take a decided swerve for the worse. On a bleak January morning one of his cases has apparently chosen to kill himself rather than talk: “Mr. Dupree was simultaneously the first dead person he had encountered in his life, his first suicide and his first hanged man and Lorimer found this congruence of firsts deceptively troubling.”

Soon our hero, who himself has a lot to hide, finds himself threatened by a dodgy type whose loss he has adjusted way down and embroiled with the beautiful married actress Flavia Malinverno. “People who’ve lost something, they call on you to adjust it, make the loss less hard to bear? As if their lives are broken in some way and they call on you to fix it,” Flavia dippily wonders. Lorimer also has his car torched and instantly goes from an object of affection to one of deep suspicion at the Fort. Then there is another case, the small matter of the rock star who may or may not be faking the Devil he says is sitting on his left shoulder.

Needless to say, Lorimer is “becoming fed up with this role of fall guy for other people’s woes.” Boyd adds a deep layer of psychological heft and a lighter level of humour to this thinking-person’s thriller by exploring Lorimer’s manifold personal and social fears. This is a man who desperately collects ancient helmets even though he knows they offer only “the illusion of protection.” Another of Armadillo’s many pleasures: its dose of delicious argot. Should Lorimer “oil” the apparent perpetrator of the Fedora Palace arson before he’s oiled himself? Or perhaps he just needs to “put the frighteners” on him. Boyd definitely puts the frighteners on his readers more than once in this cinematically seedy and dazzling literary display.

Darkness, death and lots of dodgy goings on. It’s a good effort from Boyd but perhaps not quite what it should be. Enjoyable enough though.


Life’s a beach

12 11 2016

Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd



In the heart of a civil war torn African nation, primate researcher Hope Clearwater made a shocking discovery about apes and man. . . .

Young, alone, and far from her family in Britain, Hope Clearwater contemplates the extraordinary events that left her washed up like driftwood on Brazzaville Beach. It is here, on the distant, lonely outskirts of Africa, where she must come to terms with the perplexing and troubling circumstances of her recent past. For Hope is a survivor of the devastating cruelties of apes and humans alike. And to move forward, she must first grasp some hard and elusive truths: about marriage and madness, about the greed and savagery of charlatan science, and about what compels seemingly benign creatures to kill for pleasure alone.

It’s an intelligent, well-written and nicely paced story. Not sure that the apes and humans parallels really work but nevertheless it is entertaining and worth a read.



The colonial good guy

9 07 2016

A Good Man in Africa by William Boyd



Escapee from suburbia, overweight, oversexed … Morgan Leafy isn’t overburdened with worldly success. Actually, he is refreshingly free from it. But then, as a representative of Her Britannic Majesty in tropical Kinjanja, it was not very constructive of him to get involved in wholesale bribery. Nor was it exactly oiling his way up the ladder to hunt down the improbably pointed breasts of his boss’s daughter when officially banned from horizontal delights by a nasty dose …

Falling back on his deep-laid reserves of misanthropy and guile, Morgan has to fight off the sea of humiliation, betrayal and ju-ju that threatens to wash over him.

The improbably named hero Leafy runs from difficulty to problem to disaster and they keep stacking up for him as he stumbles from one mess to another. No-one comes out of this particularly well as the whole colonial edifice begins to crumble. Sharply observed and with plenty of comic scenes, some of which are extremely funny, it is certainly an entertaining read.




Quite a wait

13 10 2012

Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

Vienna, 1913. Lysander Rief, a young English actor, walks through the city to his first appointment with eminent psychiatrist, Dr Bensimon. Sitting in the waiting room he is anxiously pondering the particularly intimate nature of his neurosis when a young woman enters. Lysander is immediately drawn to her strange, hazel eyes and her unusual, intense beauty. Her name is Hettie Bull. Their subsequent affair is both passionate and particularly destructive. Moving from Vienna to London’s West End, from the battlefields of France to hotel rooms in Geneva, Waiting for Sunrise is a feverish and mesmerising journey into the human psyche, a beautifully observed portrait of wartime Europe, a plot-twisting thriller and a literary tour de force.

Plenty of twists and turns and interesting wartime settings. Rief, the lead character, is not terribly engaging though and I did really find it difficult to feel a huge amount of sympathy for him. I reckon about half of the books I read are described by someone somewhere as a “literary tour de force” but few genuinely deserve the accolade. This one, well-written as it is, unfortunately doesn’t quite scale those heights either.

Thunderstorms in London

16 06 2011

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd

Adam, a climatologist in flight from America and a sexual indiscretion that has thrown a spanner into his marriage and his academic career, is in London for a job interview. Dining alone, he strikes up a conversation with Philip Wang, an immunologist who subsequently leaves a sheaf of papers in the restaurant; when Adam attempts to return them, he finds his new acquaintance taking a siesta with a bread knife in his side. A clever man, Kindred immediately does two stupid things: he removes the bread knife, thus ensuring both death and fingerprints, and goes on the run, pursued by Wang’s killer. With a murderer and, shortly, the police on his trail, he creates a hidey-hole in an overshadowed piece of rough ground on the Embankment and settles down to a life of subterfuge, vagrancy and killing seagulls for dinner.

A nice review in the Guardian of this. It is an extremely good effort and an entertaining thriller. As the review says, it does feel that there are bigger themes in here struggling to get out and that things could have gone in rather different, and perhaps more interesting, directions at some point. Nevertheless, a really good read and the details of Adam’s battle for survival in London as a non-person are compelling.

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