A Choice of Murder 
by Peter Vansittart.
Peter Owen, 216 pp., £14.99, June 1992, 0 7206 0832 5
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Portrait of the Artist’s Wife 
by Barbara Anderson.
Secker, 309 pp., £13.99, June 1992, 9780436200977
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Turtle Moon 
by Alice Hoffman.
Macmillan, 255 pp., £14.99, June 1992, 0 333 57867 8
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Double Down 
by Tom Kakonis.
Macmillan, 308 pp., £14.99, April 1992, 0 333 57492 3
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Corinth, between two seas, the eye of the world. Timoleon, called Timo, son of Timodemos, younger brother of Timophanes. Timo growing up, butt of Timophanes the violent. ‘Violence? How else did father Zeus win Olympus?’ Only winners have respect in Corinth. Timophanes is a winner. Takes power, announces the Programme, becomes the Despot. Yet in battle flinches. Timo saves his life. No thanks, no promotion. Timo’s loving friend Kallias tells of a plot against the Despot. ‘Timo. They need you. Your turn has come.’ The god Hermes whispers to Timo: ‘Dagger.’ Timo stabs and kills his brother, is exiled from Corinth, spends years in the wilderness. Time alters the past. Gods, too, change ...

The exclamatory staccato style is Peter Vansittart’s, and so are some of the words. Many sentences get no further than half a dozen words, some are mere singletons. The manner is intentional, but no more digestible for that. Its chief purpose would seem to be the conveyance of chunks of historical background and atmosphere in a paragraph or less.

This clumsy approach to historical storytelling is a pity, because Mr Vansittart’s is an ambitious work concerned primarily with the uses of power, and offering many glances at modern parallels in the account of Timo’s career as an innocent who became a master in playing both ends against the middle. Invited to return to Corinth as Timo the Liberator, his fratricide acclaimed as a patriotic act, he becomes involved in saving the city-state of Syracuse from the threat of Carthage. There are battles and strategies to avoid them, adroit outmanoeuvring of an embassy sent by a Carthaginian satrap, a brilliant sketch of the hedonist Dionysius who rules Syracuse and is unpopular even though he has ‘crucified none, tortured only a few, and ... given them spectacles and processions, written them a tragedy’.

Dionysius ends his days comfortably in Corinthian exile, Timo becomes ruler of Syracuse. There are times when he sounds like a super Baldwin or Attlee, blending pacific gestures and ruthless action. ‘Reject one faction, support another,’ he advises. ‘But only for a period. The best strive to undermine their own authority.’ Attlee-like, he says little, but provokes speech from others. He knows the importance of gaining the crowd’s approval, but only appears to consult and inform the assemblies. Dishonesty must be disapproved, but still ‘moderate corruption oiled the chariot’. Timo presents himself finally, not as Liberator or Conqueror, but merely as ‘a trustworthy unspectacular magistrate, due for retirement’. Vansittart tells us that his ‘mixed constitution’ in Syracuse lasted 14 years. The portrait of him is masterly, the modern instances delicately suggested, the result less a novel than a highly intelligent study in power politics.

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife begins with the funeral of what a ministerial encomium calls ‘New Zealand’s most venerated writer’, Jack Macalister. Present is wife Sarah, who urges those present to read his books, the Macalister girls Dora and Emily, twenty years apart in age, and Jack’s friend and first publisher Charles Bremner, who was also Sarah’s lover. Funeral and reception over, we go back to childhood, when all three main characters grew up in Hawke Bay, apparently a place to get away from. And get away they do when Jack makes 17-year-old Sarah pregnant. They’ve already settled what they’re going to be. Jack will write, Sarah will paint, Charles publish. Sure enough, that’s what they all do.

Barbara Anderson’s last fiction led critics to mention Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf, and call her a ‘born writer’, whatever that may mean. This one makes such praise hard to understand. It is a competent family saga of a familiar kind. Jack is the standard-model wild novelist, Sarah is determined to ‘keep her painting self intact’, and gets help from a German refugee art teacher who says Ach and Ja. Rows, love affairs, success for both follow. Sarah sells pictures, Jack becomes New Zealand’s senior novelist, wins a Commonwealth Prize for literature, drops dead at 52. As Sarah says, what else could you expect of someone who drank and smoked as he did? Why, nothing, and the trouble with this novel is that Jack, Sarah and Charles give us nothing you wouldn’t expect.

Alice Hoffman’s Turtle Moon promises better. It is set in Verity, the most humid and the quietest spot in eastern Florida, a town where the only sound is that of strangler figs dropping their fruit on the roofs of parked cars. The opening is witty and stylish. Twelve-year-old Keith, the meanest boy in Verity, drinks, smokes, and steals everything in sight from lunch money to birthstone rings off schoolmates’ fingers. Keith hates his mother Lucy, ‘a pretty woman with slightly green hair’, wants to be back in New York with his father. We meet Bethany, divorced from randy Randy, who has fled from New York to Verity with her baby daughter Rachel. There’s an eccentric cop named Julian Cash, so ugly that his mother fainted when she first saw him and tree frogs go limp with fear in the palm of his hand.

This material for a Faulknerian comedy is made instead into sticky romantic mush. There is a murder, Keith takes off with baby Rachel, and the meanest boy in Verity (a phrase too often repeated) proves to be not only a superlative baby-minder, but also the only friend of the fiercest dog in Verity, one even his owner Julian Cash can’t handle. In the end, the dog gets the murderer, Julian gets Lucy, a reformed Keith (‘when the boy sees himself reflected in the dog’s eyes he knows exactly who he is’) goes back to dad in New York. The writing remains stylish, but mush is mush.

In terms of achieving the author’s intentions Double Down is the most successful of these books. This is the third story by Tom Kakonis on the theme of the hunted man which Graham Greene believed to be the staple of all good thrillers. In Michigan Roll and this one the central figure is Waverley, a gambler with the card-counting memory that makes other pro’s wary of him. That first novel found him deep in Mafia trouble because of his help to a girl whose brother unwisely tried to cheat the mob of a cocaine consignment. In Double Down he has fled from Michigan and holed up in Miami, pursued by a Mafia-hired hit man. Like other Kakonis villains, D’Marco Fontaine is not from standard casting. He is handsome, a fitness fanatic, and a vegan who eats at Mother Nature’s Pantry. ‘Powderman, torchman, wheelman, stuntman, sandman’, D’Marco is ‘the total package’ and knows it. He is set on the track of the battered Waverley because someone has to pay for the missing drugs, which the gambler in fact burnt in a moment of virtuous unwisdom. Gangster boss, Jewish go-between, half a dozen others are sharply delineated; an ex-girlfriend of Waverley’s now married to a drink-soaked attorney provides romantic interest. Kakonis has no grand literary intentions, but his writing is hard and clear, the characters plausible, the villains nasty but not touched by currently fashionable sado-masochism. Some of the book is funny, all of it is wonderfully readable. If you enjoy tough American thrillers Kakonis is less sentimental than the later Elmore Leonard, sharper and livelier than Sara Paretsky. In other words, the best around.

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