Goddard’s latest period suspenser (Sight Unseen, 2007, etc.) combines World War II, the Irish Troubles and a disreputable uncle.
Returning to England after resigning from both his position with an oil company and his American fiancée, Stephen Swan learns that he won’t be the only newcomer to his mother’s guest house in Paignton. Eldritch Swan, just released from an Irish prison after serving 36 years, has asked to stay with his late brother’s family, whom he’s never met, until he can get his feet beneath him. Uncle and nephew fail to bond. Apart from assuring Stephen that his prison term wasn’t for a violent crime and hinting that he was an innocent who was framed, Eldritch refuses to reveal why he’s been jailed since 1940; if he ever told a soul, he adds, he’d be sent back. His plan for getting on his feet doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Approached by a lawyer whose shadowy client is willing to pay £50,000 for proof that American tycoon Jay Brownlow’s collection of Picassos was stolen from Antwerp diamond merchant Isaac Meridor as he fled the approaching Nazis, Eldritch indicates that he’s the perfect man for the job—because he helped steal them. Goddard tacks back and forth between 1976 and 1940, dexterously raising new and deeper questions, then unfolding just enough of Eldritch’s colorful history to answer them, or at least to encourage both his nephew and Meridor’s granddaughter Rachel Banner to ever-greater complicity in his schemes. The suspect Eldritch fingers is unctuous, untouchable Miles Linley, now Sir Miles, for whom Eldritch fagged at school and for whom he ran an increasingly dodgy series of subdiplomatic errands as Hitler threatened Ireland and Churchill waited anxiously to see whether Eamon de Valera would support England, remain neutral or work for a German victory.
More scattershot and less inevitable-seeming than Goddard’s best work, but also sharper-edged than usual. Eldritch’s checkered career marks a welcome change from the author’s customary, sometimes oppressive, suavity.