Horace Fenton Spurgeon meets Albert Argyle; Story meets Blake (Sexton); past meets present; reality meets surreality; and the collision spills out into a metafiction of absurd humour that is so far off the wall, the wall can no longer be seen. This is, in fact, classic Story, recapturing (in 1990) something of the lighter hearted mood of his novels of the ‘60s. Yet the darker period through which he had travelled never completely lost its hold on his work. There is a harder edge beneath the romp.
Story ties together the chaotic lives of his two major ‘creations’ through the medium of Claude Marchmont, a tally man stepping into the shoes of the deceased Albert Argyle and inheriting all of Albert’s troubles. But the background story, offering a different perspective on A Company of Bandits (one of Story’s Sexton Blake novels) and mixing in various other criminal concerns, is just a vehicle. The true heart of this novel are the characters who, as in many of Story’s novels, are both caricatures and very real at one and the same time.
With a deft hand we are shown the chaos of human life and the way in which we muddle through against all the odds, how we are driven by some very basic concerns, how we find warmth in the dark from very simple pleasures.
Yet this work does something else. Quite apart from its wonderful character portraits and its cast of strange extras, it is a metafiction that wanders with ease between fiction and reality in a way that would make some ‘serious’ ‘literary’ novelists weep with envy. We move between layers of fiction (Albert Argyle had something of Story in him, but his books were as much a portrait of an age as anything else; Horace Spurgeon Fenton was a lightly fictionalised self portrait; we find mention of work that Story produced for television and film, as well as his novels), we move between past and present, we move inside and outside of the author’s head.
At no time, however, does Story lose sight of the fact he is writing an entertainment. The structure (in form of the story about a train robbery) is there and well constructed; the characters are (in terms of the novel) believable; and the whole thing zips along at a wonderful pace. You barely have time to draw breath; events are often confusing because of the pace although the reader is never cheated. If you treat the novel with respect and allow Story’s style to unfold, you are rewarded with an intelligent, exuberant, and first class piece of writing.