There is a tendency to think of Story as a writer of comic fiction (Sexton Blake and westerns notwithstanding) and for the most part he is, although that barely scratches the surface. Sometimes, however, he produced a book like this one. It has all the trappings of a comic novel, especially the trappings of a Story comic novel (which are highly distinctive). Yet the author has used this and the expectations thereby raised to create a truly disturbing and deeply insightful novel.
We are a storytelling species, we like order, we like explanations, we like a narrative. But life isn’t like that. There isn’t a plot. There aren’t chapters. The ends don’t get tied up. The order we try to create out of the shifting sands is what keep us sane. If we accept the chaos and allow everything else to push us around, we tend to get pushed out of society. If we try to impose too much control, we go mad, because what we think is happening never matches reality so we are forced into more extreme explanations, more bizarre narratives.
This is exactly what happens in this book. The details of the story are, in a sense, irrelevant. There is no way of knowing where truth, reality, and the constructs of the damaged mind coincide. What is clear is that Story has captured this descent into madness in fine detail and with tremendous irony. The closer that Alec comes to a resolution of all his problems, the deeper into mental instability he travels.
But the novel works at another level as well. There is a lot of Jack Trevor Story’s own life wrapped up in the tale and the older he became the more bewildered he was by the world. Not confused; he understood with savage clarity about the greed that was engulfing society and the politicians and social institutions that used and encouraged such an attitude. What bewildered him was why ordinary, decent, hard-working folk stood by and let it happen; why the victims of greed were accused of causing society’s ills; why the promise of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s – the creative energy, the will for peace and love – was so easily corrupted.
There are no answers here. A person whose world collapses so comprehensively is never going to find them, partly because they no longer the capacity to recognise what a valid answer might seem like. What we do have is the writing of Jack Trevor Story at a whole new level, a level so far beyond most of his other work it is difficult to comprehend at first just how far he has gone. He is using the same tools as before and presenting us with a familiar landscape, but the perspective has shifted and we know we have read a work that is one the best novels of the twentieth century.