Saturday, 6 March 2010

The Last Of The Country House Murders - Emma Tennant

Like a number of her early novels, the first impression is of a bit of ‘60s fluff – slightly weird light reading. But that is to do these books a disservice. Yes they are weird (sometimes completely off the wall surreal) – which for me is a good thing. Yes they are comic (in that apparently light-hearted foolishness that fools you long enough for the vinegar to hit the raw nerve ends) – which for me is a good thing. Yes they are short – a great virtue when confronted with the bloated corpses of books that are passed off as literature.

First impressions, however, are deceptive. This is multi-layered work that wears its erudition and its vision very lightly. Not in a throwaway sense, but in the way that elegant solutions always draw the ‘why didn’t I think of that response’. It is simple, yet a work of profundity at the same time. It is also prescient.

In some unspecified and not-too-distant future, Britain is collapsing beneath the yoke of a vaguely Orwellian state. The proles are literally beyond the pale and left to fend for themselves as best they can. Dangerous thinkers are isolated. Those previously wealthy are shut up in enclaves and allowed to die out, playing out their rituals in little theme parks. Those that are biggest threat to the state are kept distracted by endless tours and diversions. One of these is to be exactly what the title suggests.

This prefigures concerns that emerged in the ‘80s that Britain was fast become a heritage theme park and that the only industrial jobs left would be in museums, or in TV shows that harked back to a golden age. Country house murders, country house tours, all played on this cosy and rosy view of the past. But it is a past that never existed (and those elements that did were propped up then as in this future, by misery and servitude to an ethos that protects an elite). And because it never existed, attempts to recreate it soon fall apart. The planned murder goes completely awry. The agent of the state tasked with overseeing it, fails completely. And the proles storm the barricades.

Although we do not learn what happens afterwards (probably more of the same but with different masters), we get a glimpse not just of what is about to happen politically in Britain, but what the consequences might be. That there has been no revolution, no popular uprising, is not a defect of the book. The potential is there. Sadly, perhaps (or not) the British are supine when it comes to upheaval. They’d rather deal with the devil than throw him out and start taking responsibility for themselves.

Simply written (and clearly the work of an author being allowed by a publisher to develop their talent) this is, nonetheless, a highly accomplished work. Its comic element is reminiscent of Jack Trevor Story (anarchic, dark, well observed, and tending to the absurd). Its brevity, as I have alluded, is one of its strengths – the reader is trusted to fill in details and follow up on issues raised. It was and remains a breath of fresh air. Not to everyone’s taste, perhaps, but definitely to mine.