A learned, witty and splendidly entertaining descent into the demimondes of international espionage, arms dealing, financial hanky-panky and other favorite pastimes of those without conscience.
“You will have to believe whatever you think is most likely,” sagely counsels one of the many shadowy characters in this latest outing by historical whodunit specialist Pears (The Portrait, 2005, etc.). Early on, the fellow being asked to do the believing is a journalist who takes on a curious but lucrative side job tracking down the illegitimate heir of a minor member of the nobility, one who just happens to have a fantastic estate at stake. Baron Ravenscliff recently fell out of a window and broke into many pieces; says a fellow hack, “Only an accident, unfortunately.” Ah, but was it? Drawn into this promising query, our enterprising narrator finds himself doing what a good sleuth in Edwardian England might do: He consults with street characters out of Dickens and terrorists worthy of Conrad’s Secret Agent, sniffs out intelligence, beats the constabulary at its own game and gets—well, nowhere, really, since so little of what he learns about the baron, the former John Stone, quite adds up. As he muses, “So Elizabeth, Lady Ravenscliff, née Countess Elizabeth Hadik-Barkoczy von Futak uns Szala, transformed herself into Jenny the Red, revolutionary anarchist of Frankfurt. Repeat that sentence and see how easily you believe it. Then you will grasp my difficulties.” Pears’s tale turns back on itself and into the past until, deep into the book, we find that our first narrator has gone underground and none other than Stone is telling his own tale, which by this time has gotten deliciously tangled. Suffice it to say that the long but fast-paced story involves, among many other things, plenty of spy-versus-spy stuff, a whiff of romance and a plan to fill the world with enough all-destroying weapons that no one would ever dare go to war—an epic James Bond tale, in other words, by way of G.K. Chesterton and perhaps Arturo Pérez-Reverte.
Classy crime fiction, delightfully written, with few straight lines in sight.