Interesting Fellows

Walter Nash

  • The Book of Evidence by John Banville
    Secker, 220 pp, £10.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 436 03267 8
  • Carn by Patrick McCabe
    Aidan Ellis, 252 pp, £11.50, March 1989, ISBN 0 85628 180 8
  • The Tryst by Michael Dibdin
    Faber, 168 pp, £10.99, April 1989, ISBN 0 571 15450 6
  • Gerontius by James Hamilton-Paterson
    Macmillan, 264 pp, £12.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 333 45194 5

Take one housemaid, who interrupts you while you are making a ludicrously maladroit attempt to swaddle a stolen painting in brown paper. Fly into a sulk. Bundle the poor girl into your car, and when she protests, silence her with a hammer, noting, as you do so, that its impact on her skull is like hitting clay or hard putty. (You are brilliantly obsessed by details.) Drive thirty miles – recording, wide-eyed, the comic contingencies of a world as yet ignorant of your deed – to a patch of waste ground, where you leave the car, and the corpse, and the painting you set out to steal in the first place. Walk away, into the curious conviction that by this enormity you have liberated yourself from the burden of having to pretend to be what you are not.

Well, you are an interesting fellow, yes, indeed, and a queer fellow. Your name is Freddie Montgomery, and in prose of enviably luminous, ironic elegance you reveal your disastrous moral malfunction, an inability to relate thought to action, action to consequence, consequence to those structures of commitment and responsibility that frame the lives of less interesting fellows. It is fascinating that you express so coherently your spiritual incoherence; a symptom, perhaps, of your condition. What that is, I do not quite know, even after considering The Book of Evidence which you have laid before me. I might be tempted to use words like ‘psychotic’, or ‘psychopath’, but your creator, John Banville, would understandably resent these catch-all categories, as restrictions on the subtlety, the complexity, the truth of his creation. If it is possible to get at the truth of this elaborately inventive tale.

The elaboration is in the incidental detail; the story itself is simple enough. It tells how Freddie Montgomery (Frederick Charles St John Vanderveld Montgomery, if you please), stout, blond, of some intellect and no substance, king of the expatriate castle on a Mediterranean island, carelessly finds himself owing money to one Señor Aguirre, a local ‘businessman’ given to irregular commercial practices like cutting people’s ears off. Somewhat startled by the realisation that borrowing entails the concept of repayment, Freddie goes to seek his fortune in his native Ireland (in other words, does a runner), leaving his wife and son as hostages to the ototomic Señor Aguirre. His hopes of dunning his sly old mother for an advance on his patrimony are dashed when it turns out that she has been reduced to selling the family’s pictures to a Mr Behrens, a landed gentleman with whose daughter Freddie has a passing erotic acquaintance. It is during an exploratory visit to Whitewater, the Behrens’s house, that Freddie catches sight of a Flemish painting which fascinates him and which he feels impelled to steal: and it is in the course of this theft, planned and executed as though the thief had never heard of witnesses, that the maidservant makes her fatal entrance. After the murder, Freddie takes refuge with Charlie French, a seedy, shady dealer in art and antiques, whose innocent and touching loyalty to an old friend almost leads to his own ruin. This, however, is the end of Freddie’s run, and here he skulks until at length the Police arrive to arrest their man and remand him for trial, during which time he writes his Book of Evidence.

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