by James Lovegrove
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0575076836
Date: 15 September, 2005 List Price £18.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
If you've read more than one of James Lovegrove's novels, you'll know he is one of those rare and precious writers whose work is genuinely very difficult to categorise. This is an author who is comfortable in every corner of the genre and with each new book, Lovegrove manages to extend his territory, ever laying claim to something new that he can add to his repertoire. No disrespect to those beloved writers who never step outside of their comfort zone - it never did Tolkien any harm, after all! - but Lovegrove isn't amongst their ranks. And though he may not be easy to pigeonhole, there is nevertheless a definite sense of gentlemanly satire that threads through much of his work. By "gentlemanly" I mean as opposed to "savage". Lovegrove's sense of satire rarely offers comment, instead his narrative style politely opens the door for his readers and invites them in on the fun.
There's lots of fun to be had in Provender Gleed, Lovegrove's latest novel and it displays perfectly two of his greatest writing strengths. Firstly, Lovegrove's settings are always expertly depicted. I was particularly struck with his vision of a Great Britain isolated by the international community in Untied Kingdom . In this new novel, he offers another alternative vision of his homeland. Provender Gleed is the son and heir of one of the great trading families of the world. The Gleeds are at the very top of a social tree that has developed over the centuries. Imagine if the Borgia's and the di'Medicis were still around - in this world they united in the 17th century and paved the way for other families to gather riches and status that would secure their position in society for good. The families - erm, that should be the Families - are an international elite. Every major world power is influenced by their patronage and in Britain, the Families, of whom the Gleeds rank highest - are the main focus of a kind of Family Fandom, those who thrive on Family Gossip.
Very much at the centre of this attention is Provender Gleed, the twenty five year old Gleed heir - whose continual avoidance of marriage is the subject for much speculation amongst the Clanfans. It niggles his Family too, for the next generation is for them, an abiding necessity. And so, Provender can only sigh when, at this year's huge Gleed Ball, the event of the season, his mother continually parades before him a string of highly unlikable toff birds. Prov doesn't have to endure this for too long, as his party is somewhat ruined by the fact that he gets kidnapped - in spite of all the excessive security, someone managed to get through and snatch him.
And so the thrust of the novel becomes the young heir's experiences in captivity and the hunt to locate the missing Provender, and in this Lovegrove proudly displays the second of his greatest writing talents - the singular idea and how it should be applied. The Family engages two private detectives in the search for their heir - two "anagrammatic" detectives. Merlin Milner and Romeo Moore are two gentleman obsessed with words and the combinations of letters that go to make them up. They are convinced that by breaking up words, such as the names of suspects, and reassembling them, they will be led towards the answers that they seek. It's a wonderfully preposterous idea, quite barmy in fact, but Lovegrove uses it to wonderful effect, and bizarrely, it works! At least in the context of the novel, I should add!
With its imaginative and beautifully rendered setting, its cast of colourful characters (amongst my favourites of whom were the Kuczinskis - the premier Family of Poland and arch enemies of the Gleeds - who perpetuate the myth that they are from a long line of vampires, dress like Nosferatu and drink goblets of blood at the negotiating table! Great fun) and its delicate construction, reminiscent of all that is traditionally best in those robust and traditional British murder mysteries, Provender Gleed is a real treat for readers. It's a novel with a unique feel and one in which its hugely talented author balances the comedy and the drama perfectly.