The creator of Harpur and Iles (Play Dead, 2013, etc.) uses the attempted 1956 suicide of a British starlet to unleash a flood of baleful memories for the journalist tasked with writing an article about her.
The official story is that her teakettle snuffed out the gas flame while Daphne West slept, nearly asphyxiating her accidentally. But no one believes that story or is meant to. Pressed by Mirror editor Percy Lyall to interview the survivor at her hospital bedside, reporter Ian Charteris swiftly makes himself so unpleasant that he’s thrown out of her room. Daphne isn’t to know that Ian’s being even more unpleasant to himself than to her. As if in a dream, he drifts from one traumatic memory to the next. There’s the day when Ian, 5, saw his father, an officer on a paddle ship crossing the Bristol Channel, rescue passenger Emily Bass from drowning while the ship’s captain lost his life trying to save her—an episode that ruined Laurence Charteris forever. There’s the wartime interlude when Ian, 11, saw one man stab another to death in an air-raid shelter, ran for the police and ended up as the star witness in a murder trial that sent the killer to the gallows. There’s the suddenly serious rivalry between Ian and another cadet that brings Ian back to the attention of Emily Bass, now married to Ian’s group captain and doing some hush-hush government work. Finally, there’s the recent rumor of a coup to oust Prime Minister Anthony Eden over the Suez affair.
The unusual plot thickens and darkens but never comes to a full head of steam.