RogerBW's Blog

Past Caring, Robert Goddard 14 May 2017

1987 partly-historical mystery. In 1910, Edwin Strafford was Home Secretary under Asquith, and engaged to be married; then, suddenly, his intended refused to speak to him, his political career collapsed, and he ended up as a consular official in Madeira. In 1977, unemployed history teacher Martin Radford is employed by an eccentric South African to find out why, but the past is not as dead as he might have hoped.

This is a book of two narratives, and after establishing Martin as protagonist it rapidly drops into Strafford's memoir, which establishes the story of his life without solving any of the mysteries. However, since the reader knows what eventually happened to Strafford (and both the memoir and Martin's own narrative are packed full of Had I But Known moments), it's hard going to read about his happiness in early life, knowing not only that it would all come apart but that it would not be resolved in his lifetime and he'd die not knowing what had happened. It doesn't help that Strafford's prose, supposedly written in 1951 but dealing with events of the first decade of the century, has exactly the same style as Martin's, and he barely distinguishes between suffragists and suffragettes (admittedly a maggot of mine).

The South African owner of what used to be Strafford's estate has discovered this memoir and become fascinated with Strafford, and employs Martin to try to find out the details. It soon becomes apparent that other people still care deeply about this affair, and will go to some lengths to stop it coming to light.

The problem for me is with the nature of the mystery: it should be a thoroughgoing challenge, whereas in fact the outline of what happened is entirely obvious from the text of the memoir: and we're expected to believe that Strafford himself, perhaps a little naïf but certainly no fool, never considered the possibility? And nor does Martin until it's rubbed in his face? I'll go into a little more detail under rot13.

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If the story were compelling, I wouldn't mind the slow pace; in fact I often like to wallow in the details of an investigation, or romance, or adventure. As it stands, though, I was not compelled, and so I found it dragging.

In the end this rather reminds me of Spider Light which I read last year: not so much because of the juxtaposition of modern and historical mysteries, but because there is no significant mystery, just endless shaking of the box (183,000 words of it) until the pieces finally settle down in order and things can be resolved. (Don't worry, nobody gets a happy ending.)

See, I was good. I didn't make a joke about the title and my feelings even once.

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See also:
Spider Light, Sarah Rayne

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