About a third of the way through this book, in the middle of a scene of snort-in-public comic excellence, I realised I was going to have a hard time trying to enjoy what was coming next. By this point in the story, John Niven’s flawed but likeable restaurant critic protagonist, a Scot-made-good-in-London called Allan Grainger, had already found his old Ayrshire school friend Craig Carmichael begging on the street in Soho; had already offered to take him drinking; and had already given him a room in his luxurious family home in Buckinghamshire as a way of helping him get back on his feet. The two men’s friendship seemed to have been effortlessly rekindled, yet Niven had dropped just enough sly hints (and there are also one or two not-so-sly hints on the book jacket, not to mention the title) to suggest that Craig, once a famous musician with the world at his feet, was in fact on a mission to royally shaft his Good Samaritan.
The scene that convinced me I was in for a sustained emotional kicking involved Allan, Craig and Allan’s journalist wife Katie attending a dinner party thrown by Katie’s aristocratic parents in the ludicrously oversized dining room of their even more ludicrously oversized stately pile. It’s not spoiling anything to say that Craig sabotages the evening to spectacular, wince-inducing effect, but even as I was chuckling away at the ingenious manner in which he had both literally and metaphorically dropped his old pal in it, I was already starting to panic on Allan’s behalf.
Readers who are able to retain a certain level of cool detachment will no doubt chortle their way contentedly through the rest of the book, as Craig sets about systematically demolishing his friend’s life in one darkly humorous episode after another. Me though? I’m a sucker. I quite liked Allan, in spite of his obvious imperfections, and if I could have watched the rest of his calamitous story unfold from behind the sofa, I would have done.
The fact that I had such a visceral reaction to this book – albeit not an entirely pleasurable one – is testament to Niven’s great skill as a writer. He is a master at probing the dark, uncomfortable areas of the male psyche that most novelists – and indeed, most men – would rather not have to deal with, from the ways in which petty jealousies can fester dangerously for decades, to the strange phenomenon of how hierarchies established in the school playground have a tendency to persist all the way through life, regardless of how successful people go on to become. As a result, No Good Deed always feels rooted in the real world, even during its most outrageously improbable moments.
*John Niven will appear at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 26 August at 6.30pm. No Good Deed is published by William Heinemann, £16.99