By Simon Tolkien
Minotaur. 324 pp. $28.99
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Reviewed by Frank Wilson
Simon Tolkien's new novel takes place between 1958 and 1961, when murder with a gun could still get a man hanged in England, and when the phrase "angry young man" was still being bandied about. It is a phrase that suits David Swain to a T, "because anger has been the driving force of David's life for as long as he could remember - he had been angry at his father for dying and his mother for remarrying . . . ."
He had certainly been angry with his ex-girlfriend, Katya Osman, when she ditched him for a nice Jewish boy from Belgium called Ethan Mendel, especially after he discovered them making love in the boathouse on the estate of Katya's uncle, wealthy diamond dealer Titus Osman. He takes to sending letters to Katya filled with such unlovely histrionics as "I'll show you what pain is," "if I can't have you, nobody can," and "the last thing you'll see in this world is that Belgian bastard's empty dead eyes."
Unsurprising, when Franz Claes, the brother of Titus Osman's late wife, finds David outside the boathouse kneeling beside the bloody corpse of Ethan Mendel, who has been stabbed in the back, David becomes the prime suspect in the murder, and it doesn't take the jury long to find him guilty as charged.
He is sentenced to life in prison, two years into which, having been "moved around without explanation from cell to cell, from wing to wing, from gaol to gaol . . . [he] ended up back where he'd started - in Oxford Prison."
He also has a new cellmate. "Easy" Eddie Earle has been in and out of prison most of his life, but he's been working on a plan for an unofficial early release and invites David to join him. Their escape goes remarkably well, and they are whisked off in a waiting car with cash and - for David - a revolver. He has decided to pay Katya a visit. He breaks into Titus Osman's mansion, makes it to Katya's room, and - is discovered and shot at by the ever-vigilant Franz Claes. He escapes. Katya, meanwhile, has been found with a bullet in her forehead.
The only two people who think David may not be guilty of either crime are Inspector William Trave of the Oxford Police and Ethan Mendel's brother Jacob, whose hostility to Titus Osman seems odd, since it was Osman who rescued the brothers from the Nazis. Their parents, however, were not so fortunate, and Jacob suspects Osman was somehow responsible for their deaths.
As for Trave, he has personal reasons for thinking ill of Titus Osman: Trave's estranged wife, Vanessa, has fallen in love with Osman, who is not only rich, but also très suave. Trave does not handle this well. Moreover, as it happens, Vanessa knows something that Osman does not know she knows, something that could prove crucial in saving David Swain's neck.
Readers of Simon Tolkien's previous novel, The Inheritance, will note that the setups for both novels are similar. Once again, Trave has gnawing doubts as to whether someone he has put on the fast track to the gallows is really guilty, even though, once again, the evidence of guilt seems overwhelming.
But the new novel is more textured and complex than its predecessor. We get to know Trave better precisely because we get to know his wife better. Tolkien also has a real knack for creating baddies whom one comes to viscerally dislike, deftly matching psyche with physique. So Franz Claes' unfeeling gaze is complemented by the scar that runs down one side of his face, and the contrived smile of Trave's rival, Inspector Macrae, perfectly accords with his antiseptic manner of grooming and dress.
This is a series that bears watching. William Trave could well become the English Kurt Wallender.