Book review: The Dazzle by Robert Hudson

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ROBERT Hudson’s first novel, The Kilburn Social Club, was highly praised by, among others, Robert Macfarlane, the chairman of this year’s Booker judging panel.

The Dazzle by Robert Hudson

Jonathan Cape, 301pp, £16.99

He thought it “terrific… fizzy, funny, fantastical”. The Dazzle is a glittering successor, even if one might add that it is, in more than one respect, preposterous, while being also very enjoyable. It’s a tale of skulduggery, criminality, vice and decadence in a section of high society in the 1930s. It features some real-life characters under their own names, among them the journalist Martha Gellhorn who later became the third Mrs Ernest Hemingway, and Zane Grey, the best-selling author of westerns.

The centrepiece is a tunny-fishing contest in the North Sea off Scarborough in which Grey is one of the contestants. This is apparently authentic and is very well done. It also allows Hudson a nice in-joke. One slant on the action is provided by Gellhorn in letters to a friend, and she ends the last of them with the assurance that she has had “enough of egotistical fishermen to last me a lifetime”, little knowing that in a couple of years she will find herself on Hemingway’s boat, Pilar, hunting for marlin.

The tunny-fishing contest is the occasion for much else, much of it lurid. There is drug-smuggling and there are “dope-fiends” – the name given to addicts between the wars. The chief of the drug-ring may, in best inter-war fiction-style, be a sinister figure known as “The Sphinx”, whose Egyptian alias doesn’t disguise the fact that he is, or may be, Chinese – in the terminology of the time, a Chinaman – if, that is, he exists.

There is a spot of espionage, and blackmail, much bed-swapping, fashionable lesbianism, and sudden death. It is a very rich mixture. Hudson juggles his several plot-strands with aplomb and relish. You are likely to find your credulity strained, despite the presence of the real-life characters, and the echoes of Kenya’s decadent Happy Valley set, but you can’t deny it is great fun.

The story is told from different points of view, part in letters – those that Zane Grey exchanges with his wife featuring a lot of stuff about his successive girl-friends are agreeably absurd, and Hudson, who can write very well, must have delighted in writing quite as badly as he does in Grey’s letters. Other straight narrative chapters are in the third person, Hudson dipping from one form of telling to another with a blithe disregard for the sort of creative writing tutors teach their students. All the girls, it should be said, are gorgeous, except for the butch lesbian “Joe” Carstairs, another real-life character and power-boat racer.

There are serious moments when characters discuss the nature of personality and how you know who or what you really are. These conversations are mostly conducted by Gellhorn and another of the gorgeous girls, Henny, a mysterious figure who has, for reasons eventually disclosed, attached herself to Grey, and indeed annexed him. These speculations are not, however, mere decoration or distraction, but relevant to the hero, Johnny Fastolf, Earl of Caister.

Johnny is the hero, a Byronic one, an enigma with a dubious reputation – is he a drug smuggler himself? – handsome, rich, emotionally damaged and a disillusioned veteran of the trenches. He provides the boat from which Grey will fish, but he is fishing for something more important and more dangerous than tuna. Johnny is a period type, bearing some resemblance in his authority and ultimate ruthlessness to Dornford Yates’ Jonah Mansell. Still, he is gamier than Mansell; there’s just a touch of a Simon Raven character, though Raven would not have let him off as lightly as Hudson does. He is quite preposterous, and essential to the novel. If it had been written in the 1930s and then filmed, he would surely have been played by Robert Donat or, had the film been made in the Forties or Fifties, David Niven. Quite early, you are likely to realise his broken heart is made of gold. Near the end “Johnny knows he will be weighed in a fine balance, that his will never be an easy shape to see, but he is made of the decisions he has made.” That’s our Byronic hero, inscrutable, unknowable, to the last.

A lesser writer would have made of these characters, this plot and its ingredients, something truly dire. Hudson writes with such panache, assurance, sense of period, inventiveness and wit that he brings it off. You may not, on consideration, believe a word of it, yet find yourself happily applying the adjectives Robert Macfarlane gave to Hudson’s first novel: “terrific… fizzy, funny, fantastical”.