Tuesday, 27 April 2010

At the Chime of a City Clock

At the Chime of a City Clock DJ Taylor, Constable £12.99

The scene is a country-house weekend in 1931. While maids bring afternoon tea and footmen trip over each other in their eagerness to serve, the society hostess mingles with a swanky band of the not so great and the not so good.

As our narrator says, all is not quite “anyone for tennis?” A shady cove by the name of Rasmussen is eyeing up the art; a footman gets shoved down the stairs; and a body lands in a flower bed.

Then there is the global financial crisis, which hangs over proceedings. Periodically, the financiers in the party receive telegrams that leave them “looking like the chap who gets a letter from the clap clinic on the morning of his wedding”

Observing all this on our behalf is James Ross, who went to a good school but now struggles, by day, to sell carpet-cleaning solution door-to-door and, by night, to flog his poems and stories to obscure literary magazines.

He is caught up in all this because he has fallen for Rasmussen’s secretary, a femme fatale in a tight sweater called Susi, who has a penchant for struggling writers and a liking for their Soho habitats. So smitten is Ross that he has snaffled someone else’s invitation to stately Newcombe Grange, just to enter her orbit.

DJ Taylor’s novel is an impeccable, masterful evocation of time and place.
An entrancing portrait of the shabby genteel; of a soon-to-vanish world of Lyons’ Corner Houses, Park Drive ciggies and light and bitter, embossed with authentic-soounding period slang: sling your hook, easy as pie, and “a cup of the old ackamaracke”.

There are echoes of Orwell in the sickly aspidistras and struggling writers, and shades of Greene in the mentions of Lobby Ludd of the News Chronicle, razor gangs at the horse races, and in Ross’s role in fabricating a dirty weekend with a sozzled actress seeking a divorce, while a private detective looks on.

The only possible quibble is that this is not, as the dust jacket proclaims, a thriller. Neither, in the usual sense, is it a mystery. There is little suspense and less tension. There are human mysteries, but they remain unsolved.

The mystery of Ross’s broken love affair with a former fiancĂ©e called Netta hangs over the book, as does what - for him - is the ultimate mystery: women and what they want. He cannot fathom why Netta dumped him; hurling his ring in his face in a cinema queue.

A mystery to us is why, after an afternoon of country-house passion with Susi he can say: “I didn’t enjoy it much. But then I never do”

None of which detracts from what is a delightful transport into a vanished world. It merely adds an unexpected layer to a perfect period piece.