Old characters are back – James Bond, Jeeves and Wooster – while Tana French turns away from her usual ones to a new cast, and a young Nigerian novelist makes a stellar debut. Charles Finch has the season’s best fireside reads.
Does anyone truly love James Bond? The books and movies about him – sure. But what about Bond himself, killer and womanizer? “Forever and a Day,” by the versatile and charming British writer Anthony Horowitz – who already has channeled Ian Fleming once – worries at the edges of that coldness, seeking ingress. It’s set along the Riviera, at the very outset of Bond’s career. The heroin supply has dried up, and two suspects come into play, a grotesquely obese local gangster and a beautiful woman named Sixtine. Horowitz’s trademark is a kind of gorgeous competence; a reader always feels utterly secure in the credibility of his narratives, however outlandish they get. Here, again, he handles a complicated plot with aplomb (and blessedly few explosions). Does he find a human being inside James Bond? He tries, and Sixtine is one of the best Bond girls ever written. The fact that such a well-populated class exists, though, cuts against the very idea of the redemption Horowitz proposes.
A high compliment in England: “It does what it says on the tin.” (The catchphrase started as the slogan for a brand of wood stain, before quickly becoming general.) Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel does what it says on the tin. Korede, a skilled nurse in Lagos, Nigeria, has a capricious, Instagram-obsessed sister named Ayoola, and Ayoola is a serial killer. So far it’s Korede who has had to clean up after her. But then Ayoola gets a doctor in her sights – a doctor with whom Korede happens to be desperately in love. Which will give first, Ayoola’s poison rashness or her older sister’s sense of duty? Braithwaite’s inexperience shows in patches of this book, but she’s written a canny, wicked, often surprisingly poignant story, with shades of Muriel Spark and Gillian Flynn. “My Sister, the Serial Killer” marks the beginning of an immensely promising career.
There are three or so literary miracles a century, and one of them is that in the year 2018 the books of P.G. Wodehouse are still so funny. Not just amusing: funny! No artistic gift has a shorter half-life than comedy, generally, but Plum (as friends called him) was a genius, unique. Perhaps this is why most pastiches of his work fall badly flat, and why I approached Ben Schott’s with a heavy heart. Imagine my pleasure, then, at discovering that Schott, whose first novel this is after several iterations of his namesake “Miscellany,” pulls the trick off. His plot, which has to do with a fifth column inside the British government, is too dark to be truly Wodehousian, and its conscious allusions to our politics are more agreeable than faithful. What makes the book is that Schott is a wonderful, exacting mimic: Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves, could almost be mistaken for themselves, their exchanges sparkling and unexpected, giving real verve to this joyful, loving, humble and worthwhile homage.
Tana French is the kind of writer whose fans rekindle the origin of that label, not just devotees but fanatics. Her Dublin Murder Squad novels are dense scrums of action, dialogue and atmosphere, brilliantly indirect, each piecing together in surprising ways with its predecessors. The effect is magical, Yoknapatawpha County on the River Liffey. In “The Witch Elm,” she’s written a standalone that retains the mood of those books while disposing of their procedural element. We feel the loss. Toby Hennessy, a doubtfully ethical PR rep in Dublin, receives a terrible assault, and while convalescing at a family home comes across a mysterious skull. Now he has two mysteries to solve. French overlays several vivid and intriguing worlds within this novel. But her ability to create such distinct characters at the police station falters when she moves settings, and she loses control of her pacing in an unwonted way. Her fans – fanatics – will love living inside “The Witch Elm,” but newcomers may find it a slog.