The prize-winning British novelist, biographer and critic’s intriguing if inconsistent latest is a stew of family saga, murder mystery, political conspiracy and tableau of London’s history.
Foregrounding the three Hanway boys, born in a working-class corner of the English capital in the mid-20th century, Ackroyd (The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, 2008, etc.) employs the city itself as both a flickering accumulation of its past and a setting for his small web of interconnected characters. The lives of the boys—Harry, Daniel and Sam—are suddenly disrupted by the disappearance of their mother, who, it later emerges, was sent to prison for soliciting. As they grow up, the young men’s paths diverge significantly. Affable Harry rises quickly in the world of journalism and eventually marries a national newspaper proprietor’s daughter. Clever, gay Daniel finds a future at Cambridge University and in the literary world, while Sam, a wandering, possibly visionary soul, helps vagrants, rediscovers his mother—now a madam in a brothel—and becomes a rent collector for notorious slum landlord Asher Ruppta, a character who connects all three brothers. With its echoes of Charles Dickens and the angry young men of the 1950s, and its population of caricatures and ghosts, Ackroyd’s short novel maintains a patchy course, passing through gothic flourishes to reach an open-ended conclusion.
At times humdrum and perfunctory, at others fantastical, this genre-spanning novel offers lightweight bookish entertainment.