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by William Boyd

Pub Date: April 17th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-06-187676-9
Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

A classy entertainment from the British virtuoso (Ordinary Thunderstorms, 2010, etc.)—a period caper that evolves into an adventure story of wartime counter-espionage.

A handsome young English actor has a sexual problem: He cannot ejaculate. Which is why Lysander Rief is in Vienna in the summer of 1913: He’s a patient of an English psychoanalyst with a crackpot theory, Parallelism. Lysander needs his problem cleared up before he marries his fiancée, the lovely leading lady Blanche Blondel. Soon enough, Lysander discovers that underneath Vienna’s decorum runs a “river of sex.” A fellow patient, Hettie Bull, seduces him, and to his delight Lysander performs well; hey, the theory works! Lysander enjoys trysts with the volatile Hettie, an English sculptor, until one day, to his astonishment, he is arrested on rape charges; Hettie has betrayed him to her menacing common-law husband. Military attachés at the British embassy bail him out, sheltering him and devising his escape. The actor improvises a disguise to leave Vienna which so impresses the attachés that a year later, now the Great War has begun, they recruit him to track down a high-placed traitor in the British war machine. Subterfuge has been a recurrent theme in Boyd’s work. Lysander’s mission entails a dangerous visit to the front, followed by a tricky confrontation with the traitor’s German contact in Geneva. Even in another outrageous disguise, Lysander is almost shot dead by another British agent due to a misunderstanding. Back in London, the intrigue becomes even denser. Boyd parodies the convolutions of the genre but retains its suspense, while that river of sex flows like the Thames. A contrite Hettie re-appears. Lysander enjoys himself with her before finding true fulfillment with Blanche, who has survived a Zeppelin attack, and dispatching the traitor with the help of his gay uncle (don’t tell the boss). 

Boyd’s latest has the irresistible charm of a vintage car that’s still eminently roadworthy. And it’s great fun.