Thursday, 31 July 2008

Bleeding Heart Square

Andrew Taylor is one of my favourite contemporary writers, now enjoying the commercial success his considerable literary gifts have so long deserved. Much of his best work is set in the past, and his latest, set in 1934, shows us a novelist at the height of his powers. The title – and it’s a great title, I think – is taken from the name of a square in central London. (I would have been glad of a map, but then I have a definite weakness for maps in books.) The atmosphere is faintly reminiscent of that in some of the novels of Patrick Hamilton (a fascinating writer whom I’ll discuss in a future post) but the style and plotting is very much Taylor’s own.

Lydia Cassington flees to no. 7 Bleeding Heart Square, to stay with her long-estranged father, after her marriage to a rich brute becomes intolerable. Her father’s landlord is the enigmatic Joseph Serridge. Serridge’s house is being watched by a mysterious individual called Narton, and he is being sent parcels containing rotting hearts. Soon. Rory Wentwood visits the house. Four years earlier, the rich aunt of his girlfriend Fenella vanished without trace, and Rory suspects that Serridge (with whom the aunt was besotted) was responsible for her disappearance.

This is a complex book, and a compelling read. The period detail is splendidly done, and the final twist is quite brilliant; I freely confess that I failed to see it coming. Taylor is not trying to write a thriller here, and the pace of the narrative is steady, rather than electrifying. In the second half of the book, the story slows a little, and there is perhaps more detail about the activities of the British Union of Fascists than is strictly necessary for the purposes of the plot.

I did find the political material intriguing, though. Not once, but twice, Fascists use phrases strongly reminiscent of ‘British jobs for British workers’, a phrase of which our present Prime Minister is fond. And I even wondered if, in his scornful depiction of authoritarian bullies who are happy to trample on the civil liberties of those who oppose them, Andrew Taylor was hinting at a parallel with some of the more dubious policies and attitudes of our present government. Maybe, maybe not. But it’s one more layer of interest in a book that is rich in texture.

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