A bang comes at the door, and with it an offer that one shouldn’t refuse but must. Thus begins Brit novelist Harkaway’s (The Gone-Away World, 2008) latest stuffed-to-the-rafters romp through genres and eras.
Harkaway is the son of spy-thriller master John le Carré, but he has none of his father’s economy or world-weariness. Indeed, he takes a more-is-better approach: If one jape is good, 10 will kill; if one dramatic arc succeeds, let’s have a few more. The tale opens up as a sort of hard-boiled fantasy: The unfortunately named Joe Spork, a clock repairer by day, finds himself drawn into a weird web involving his father, a gangster and half of British intelligence during World War II and the early years of the Cold War, all courtesy of a sort of doomsday machine that falls into his possession. The current inhabitants of Whitehall want it. So does a bad, bad Asian dictator. A band of steampunks called the Ruskinites—you’ve got to know a little something about Victorian aesthete John Ruskin for that joke to work—figure in the proceedings, as do assorted hunters and collectors. Joe has a few choices: He can hit the trail, he can turn tough-guy and fight back or he can sell out. Which choice he’ll stick with is a matter on which Harkaway leaves us guessing, meanwhile traveling the edges between fantasy, sci-fi, the detective novel, pomo fiction and a good old-fashioned comedy of the sort that Jerome K. Jerome might have written had he had a ticking thingy instead of a boat as his prop. Harkaway is a touch undisciplined; his tale stands comparison to Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, but it’s a lot looser, and sometimes there’s too much of a good thing. But it’s a funny surfeit, rich with good humor and neat twists—and you’ve got to love the self-doubting super-spy heroine, once a bit of a femme fatale, now a dotty oldster: “She has to admit privately that she may be mad…She has not lost her marbles or popped her garters, or any of the cosier sorts of madness she had observed in her contemporaries. She has, if anything, gone postal.”
A touch early in the season for a beach book, though just the kind of thing to laugh at away from polite society. Top-notch.