In this debut novel by British TV producer Elton, a peculiar American turns a series of English children’s books into international bestsellers, with bad results for the author’s family.
Mr. Toppit is the dark, unseen force plaguing Luke, the boy hero of The Hayseed Chronicles, which became wildly popular only after author Arthur Hayman was killed in a London traffic accident. Arthur’s son Luke resents “my childhood being ransacked,” and his sister Rachel is even more upset about being left out; she’s a mentally unstable drug addict. We learn this in the opening pages, then the scene shifts to 1981, when tourist Laurie Clow witnesses Arthur’s accident and hears his dying words. The very strange Laurie immediately feels an intense personal bond with Arthur; it’s clear little good can come of her worming her way into the shell-shocked household of Luke, Rachel and their mother Martha (who’s got plenty of back story to feel guilty about). The novel is more than half over when Laurie begins reading The Hayseed Chronicles on a local California radio show; in no time, she’s a celebrity, the books are being published in America and the Haymans are rich. Part Two mostly chronicles a disastrous summer five years later, when first Luke and then Rachel come to stay with Laurie in California. A final scene in 1995 follows Rachel into the woods near the Haymans’ home in Dorset, looking for Mr. Toppit. Elton shifts among (too) many points of view, and we never understand why Rachel and Laurie are so damaged, or why Luke has managed to remain relatively sane and decent. That said, he’s created some genuinely creepy characters, Laurie in particular, and he has some wicked fun with the entertainment industries.
Skillfully written and oddly haunting: Elton may have even better novels in his future.