A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Eldritch Swan is a dead man. Or at least that is what his nephew Stephen has always been told. Until one day Swan walks back into his life after thirty-six years in an Irish prison. He won’t say why he was locked up – only that he is innocent of any crime. His return should interest no one. But the visit of a lawyer with a strange request will take Swan and his sceptical nephew to London, where an exhibition of Picasso paintings is the starting point on a journey that will take them back to when the pictures were last seen – on the eve of the Second World War. Untangling the web of murky secrets, family ties and old betrayals that surrounds their mysterious reappearance will prove to be a dangerous pursuit for the two men. Because watching their every step is a sinister enemy who will do whatever it takes to stop the truth emerging …
I was looking forward to this book as I’ve always enjoyed the crime novels of Robert Goddard which are usually easy reads with exciting plots and interesting characters. Sadly, however, after ploughing (and I mean ploughing) my way through this one, I couldn’t honestly say the words easy, exciting or interesting were high on my list.
The premise of the novel is good and I liked the idea of a naughty relative presumed dead turning up again after many years and causing havoc. It’s just a shame that Eldritch Swan has no charm, and neither does his nephew, Stephen, the hero of the book. I couldn’t raise much interest in either of them. Sorry.
This might be a by-product of the extremely long-drawn-out, complex beyond measure and ultimately very dull plot. Call me an airhead, but the ins and outs of the Irish political question, secret missions for various countries, art forgery, family rivalries, and long-held notions of revenge failed to engage me on any level. Not only that but the agonising and intricate details of all the above were bludgeoned across my head so many times and in such a variety of ways that I lost the will to live very early on and skipped over three-fifths of the text with increasing despair. So there might be something gripping in there, but frankly, my dears, I didn’t give a damn. However, the format of the book did provide a moment of high amusement as at one point I found myself (being a keen Kindle user) pressing the right hand page and wondering why the dang paper didn’t turn over. Goodness me but the old-fashioned method of actually turning a page over physically is just so exhausting. But all was not lost: my darling husband saw my dilemma and my inability to solve it and rushed to turn the page for me. So Kindle habits work with paperbacks too …
Anyway, moving swiftly on. There were some lines here I really liked and gave me hope that in this morass of words was a good author trying to get out. Here’s Stephen questioning his mother about Eldritch’s reappearance:
‘Where is he, then?’ I asked as she switched the kettle on, sensing she might launch blithely off into a series of questions about my career and the former fiancée she’d never met (and now never would) if I didn’t set the agenda.
‘You mean Eldritch?’
“No, Mum. I mean the other ex-con you’ve taken in.’
And then, later at dinner:
Conversation didn’t exactly flow fluently over dinner. My mother filled the silences with babble about recent events in Paignton which only made it obvious there hadn’t been any.
Lovely. I just wish Goddard could have maintained that standard of acidic wit. Sadly he doesn’t and, on an ironic note, there’s a point in the text where a minor female character is said to be disappointed at Stephen’s arrival in her home, and quite honestly my sympathies were entirely and absolutely with her:
Lasiyah herself was a tiny, almond-eyed girl with lustrous waist-length hair and a watchful expression. She didn’t speak more than a word or two of English and something in the way she looked at me implied she wasn’t happy at having my company foisted on her.
Me too, Lasiyah, me too. Speaking of women, I know Goddard likes to include some kind of romantic entanglement in his crime novels, but quite honestly I don’t think he’s very good at writing them and they don’t work. I’d prefer the books without the romance (something I never thought I’d say). Here, I didn’t believe the relationship between Stephen and Rachel on any level and had no interest in them as a couple. I also thought the concept of Rachel battling womanfully on against all the odds in order to win back the fortunes stolen from previous generations of her family was stretched to the point of lunacy. Didn’t everyone’s grandparents lose or have stolen some measure of their family’s fortune? I thought that was normal life, myself. Or perhaps that is just my family? Certainly, none of us has ever bothered to go looking for the readies buried in the family vaults, and really this book hasn’t encouraged me to change my mind on that front. Rachel: move on already.
Back to the novel therefore: what more can I say? There are also sections written in different time zones, with enormous numbers of people popping up and telling us a lot of stuff at great length. These time switches are irritating and the information dumps debilitating. However, I did like the neat and surprisingly well-written ending and was indeed vastly relieved to reach it when it finally appeared on Page 525. Which was about 200 or so pages after the book should have finished, alas.
So, the strapline on this novel is: For thirty-six years, they thought he was dead … They were wrong. My personal version is: For thirty-six years, they thought he was dead … Lord, but I wish he had been.
Long Time Coming, Bantam Press 2010, ISBN: 978 0 552 15682 0
[Anne is inclined to deep frustration if a usually reliable author throws a wobbly, but as she throws many a wobbly herself, she’s really in no position to judge …]