PERFECT GALLOWS by Peter Dickinson


Email this review


In this complex but relatively unaffecting offering, prolific and talented Dickinson (The Last Houseparty, 1982; Tefuga, 1986; 14 other novels) again invokes his favorite scenario of flashbacks-and-forwards to illuminate the truth behind a central mystery: here, the hanging death of a black African, servant to a wealthy British clan. The 1944 discovery of the body of Samuel Mkele by young Andrew Wragge opens the novel--and closes it as well, as Dickinson flits between events leading up to that discovery, and Andrew's ponderings, 42 years later, upon the true cause of Samuel's supposed suicide. The young Andrew is a teen-aged aspiring actor called upon the death of his mother to live at the estate of rich and nasty ""Uncle Vole""; the old Andrew is a world-famous thesbian prompted by the estate sale of Uncle's effects to reminisce with his latest girlfriend about the killing. In the 1944 chapters, Dickinson brilliantly evokes the stiff, cloistered life of the estate, as Andrew, Uncle, his two spinsterly daughters, and Samuel--a South African who bonded to Uncle as the Britisher amassed a fortune in diamonds--argue and backstab, only to be disrupted by both the barracking of American soldiers on the estate and by the sudden appearance of--an imposter?--claiming to be Uncle's long-lost son, Charles. Tensions between Charles and Andrew over who will be Uncle's heir, a love affair between Andrew and a local girl, black-market dealings between Americans and British, and the dan's preparation for an amateur Shakespearian production paint the backdrop to Andrew's metamorphosis from innocent lad into calculating actor who will sacrifice anything for career. Finally, in the concluding 1986 chapter, the elderly Andrew reveals himself, without remorse, as a man who long ago sold his soul--to Samuel's killer in exchange for financial gain, and to the glitter and limelight of the stage. Dickinson's bull's-eye social commentary works far better than the mystery element here, which--too scattered to generate suspense and too lazy in its easy, final resolution--fails to support properly Andrew's spiritual decline. Erratic Dickinson, then, but still rich enough to please tolerant readers after an offbeat read.

Pub Date: Jan. 20th, 1987
Publisher: Pantheon