Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Derby Day: DJ Taylor, Chatto and Windus, £17.99

The mists of Lincolnshire haunt the flat fields and lowering sky, and seep into local myth and legend.

Out of this fog which, we are told, lurks like a dense white halo over the low-lying land, there is said to gallop a winged steed: coal-black, with flaming eyes.

This mist haunts Scroop, a gently disintegrating manor house that overlooks the wolds, “where there are more rooks than Christian folk”.

Scroop is the ancestral home of Samuel Davenant, and to a second flesh-and-blood black horse – Tiberius - which casts its spell over the characters in DJ Taylor’s gothic, evocative novel.

In particular, Taylor’s characters are spellbound by the two and a half minutes that it will take Tiberius to run the Derby.

In those 160 seconds, fortunes may be made, men will be ruined, and the fates and destinies of the characters in this mesmerising, finely-realised pastiche of a Victorian novel determined.

The race is the climax to a tale in which George Happerton, a chancer and adventurer, bluffs his way into marriage with Rebecca Gresham, daughter of an unutterably respectable lawyer who has worked in the Equity Courts for 50 years.

Marriage to her is said to be worth £50,000. But it’s not enough. And nor is the respectability that this marriage could have won him.

Having got the girl, Happerton sets out to steal the horse from Davenant, through a campaign of forgery and deception funded, although he doesn’t know it, by his father-in-law.

But Rebecca has depths or – rather – shallows to match those of her husband, if only he could recognise them. Instead, she remains an unfathomable mystery to him.

If Happerton is a modern Victorian man, his wife is a modern woman. She likes his campaign to buy Tiberius and win the Derby because “it spoke of enterprise, status and ultimately money”.

She admires his speculative schemes, or at least those she is told of, but is irked that she is kept in ignorance of others. And, knowing that this modern world is not quite modern enough for she herself to take any great strides, she schemes to use her husband as her proxy, plotting to have him installed as a Conservative MP.

Taylor aspires to introduce us to a cast of characters to rival Dickens, who he references several times in the text. He makes a pretty good fist of it.

We have Happerton’s lowlife sidekick– some say his jackal - Captain Raff: a small, dirty, and rather ill-favoured former officer.

There is Mr Pardew, a crack safe-breaker whose enterprises are a key part of the Tiberius/Derby plot.

And there are Mr Gallentin, the Leadenhall Street jeweller whose lifted gems help finance Tiberius’s attempt on the Derby, and honest-plod Captain McTurk of the Metropolitan Police, who seeks to foil the plot.

All are swept up onto the Epsom Downs to take part in the novel’s climax; to mingle with the faux aristocrats, the swells in frock coats, tiny half-starved boys selling race cards, grub street scribblers from the Pictorial Times and the Illustrated London News, and the Mayfair tarts – Happerton’s among them.