I enjoy Stephen Fry in TV bite-sized doses as a compere or narrator and especially as an impassioned debater. He always has something to say, most times interesting and usually erudite. Like a number of such ebullient personalities, he can lead to overdosing at times and he comes perilously close in the opening of this novel. That stage is overwhelmingly devoted to the sometime poet and appropriately sacked theatre critic, Ted Wallace, either narrating direct to the reader or writing incredibly long letters to character Jane who has set him off on an investigatory expedition to a modern country house.
An important aside here … this tale novel has been made into a film being released at this moment. Ted, who is an amalgam of Fry and Kingsley Amis is played by Roger Allam and editor Rupert Keynes by the tasty Russell Tovey along with some eye candy young men including the cast of an homerotic Titus Andronicus (!) – I look forward to it. Tim McInnerny plays the role of Oliver Mills, a typical lecherous old queen and defrocked priest, who always wants one more conquest and has the dreary habit of using rhyming slang to the point of tedium – ‘Amanda Amazement’ – one of my pet hates. On the other hand, I do enjoy a good limerick and here Fry obliges with one for ted
‘There was an old lecher named Ted
Who was known to be useless in bed
He’d fumble and push
And screw the poor mattress instead.’
The time gap between the writing and filming is indicative of the book’s mixed reception. It is composed of a number of elements that clearly arise from Fry’s interests and background. There is the lengthy Amis-like blustering vituperation that dominates initially and returns regularly (often with laugh-out-loud material). You can visualize and hear Fry enunciate every acid syllable. There is the grudging use of a computer to explain away Ted’s epistolary extravagance (Fry is a technophile). There is the quite extended reference to anti-Semitism and its familial sequelae (Fry has had this experience from his Jewish mother’s background and, in 2005, discovering the desecration of his great grandfather’s grave). Central to the development of the investigation (it is only just a narrative) are Fry’s views on religion, hucksterism and science.
So, there is a vaguely Agatha Christie investigation taking place largely in a modern luxurious country house with all the consumptory (made that up) delights Ted enjoys (he does his best thinking in a warm bath with a good scotch). The characters are vintage country house and county society but with lots of poking fun and some interesting denouments (I’m having a Fry attack). The nature of what is being investigated is initially unclear but emerges (for me) as an hilarious secret with a very sexual component involving both humans and livestock. Its nature is revealed to the reader in a scene that may defeat filming (I shall see) and to the unknowing house guests in a typical Agatha Christie conclusion.
Not the greatest novel of its type but with much to enjoy especially if your thinking is partly in tune with Fry. It brought back memories to me of at least one person who could well have lived the role of Ted to a T. Patchy but finally enjoyable.