A down at heel, disreputable former teacher is enlisted to research a mystery which has spanned the first half of the 20th century ... and beyond. As he delves into the past, his own failures come back to haunt him. It seemed, at first, to be an excuse for a bit of a jaunt and a chance to earn some spare cash; it quickly turns into a real mystery in which the teacher must anticipate threats to his own life and the total disruption of his world.
Robert Goddard does an excellent job of taking the Liberal Government's pre-World War One constitutional crisis and making it the backdrop for his mystery. Prime Minister Asquith is not one of the most memorable of British politicians, and the crisis occasioned by Lloyd George's welfare policies is forgotten by all but those few historians specialising in the era.
Goddard, nevertheless, brings it alive and makes it both comprehensible to the non-historian and relevant to the plot. Using themes of political rivalry between Asquith, Lloyd George, and Churchill, and the radical intervention of the Suffragette movement, he constructs a highly entertaining page-turner of a novel.
He handles the exposition of the history very well. This is no fluffy 'costume drama': the themes of rivalry, jealousy, intrigue, and political manipulation are timeless, and Goddard sets them up neatly and convincingly.
His hero is flawed. He has a past ... he seems unlikely to have a future. He's no conventional thriller hero - if it came to a fight between him and an aged nun, I'd put my money on the nun. He is, effectively, a nondescript little bourgeois with contacts from his Cambridge days - he has all the social graces and some of their advantages, but he's squandered his opportunities because of his flawed character.
Goddard develops his unheroic hero quite well - this is Goddard's first novel, in later books his characterisation becomes more acutely constructed and managed. If there is a fault in this work, however, it is in the dialogue, which can be a bit sterile. Virtually all the characters talk with the same voice - polite, Oxbridge tones with little real emotion and much elaborated rationalisation.
Nevertheless, it's a very good tale, well told (in the main), and, like all good first novels, it's a useful yardstick against which to measure the writer's emergent talent. I interviewed Goddard some years ago. He's a very pleasant, articulate, knowledgeable, and likeable man - you suspect an evening in his company over a few beers would be highly entertaining. He also writes exceedingly good thrillers - very English (as a Scot, I do not always use this as a derogatory term), with an enthralling ability to grasp history and relate it to the present.
Excellent, enjoyable page-turner of a novel. Like all Goddard's works, a fine book to take away with you for a weekend or to accompany you on a long plane or train journey while an expert storyteller transports you into another world.