Email this review


A slender first novel that succeeds as a satire on modern literary celebrity but fails in its primary goal as mystery. The narrator is 50-year-old Alex Ostroff, the son of suave, mysteriously wealthy Russian expatriates Dmitry and Tatyana. After his parents' puzzling disappearance in postwar Europe, Alex arrived in London with dreams of becoming a famous writer; but the 1980's find him at a humdrum job with the BBC, while he writes long, unsuccessful serious novels drawing on what his agent calls, with great disgust, his ""baroque imagination."" His rich hack-writer friend Teddy Bendix gives him sage advice: all authors these days have to put out a certain amount of trash--""If you want to succeed. . .you have to unload your share of shit."" So Alex grits his teeth, turns the picture of Chekhov to the wall, and writes Troika, a glittery novel in which he uses his parents and their friend, Felix Dumont, as models for a crooked Russian expatriate couple and their French partner who swindle the rich on the French Rivera in the '30s. The novel is an immediate success and Alex is feted all over London. But he unwisely begins telling people that the novel is autobiographical, and an eager-beaver literary critic starts snooping around in his past, looking for the truth. Alex stonewalls her but is inspired himself to look into the reality of his parents' relationship with Dumont, who was a handsome con artist from Marseille. Did Felix betray them to the Gestapo? Did they themselves betray Felix? And what eventually happened to them after the war? These are only a few of the questions that even Felix's actual appearance (as a London bathhouse attendant) fails to answer, and the novel ends in a coy and deliberate obscurity. In sum: nicely arch on the London literary life, but Smith flops badly when the novel veers toward Graham Greene and chic mystery.

Pub Date: Sept. 2nd, 1986
Publisher: St. Martin's