on 18 June 2015
This is only the fourth William Boyd book I've read. The others were Restless (an excellent WWII spy story), The Blue Afternoon (a well written, if slightly tedious, romance-cum-murder mystery) and Solo (with some reservations a very effective James Bond reboot). Armadillo - a masterful character study-cum-mystery - is perhaps second best to Restless.
I was aware of the mixed reviews, and hesitated to buy it until I saw The Complete Review had given it a coveted A rating. Initially - like many others, I guess - I had a problem identifying with the protagonist, unsurprisingly because he is the representative of a profession which is (if Boyd is to be believed) cruel, dishonest and cynical, driving people to their deaths. But once we buy into the personality of Lorimer Black, we can stand beside him as he experiences the results of his actions, and can sympathize with his very human dilemmas. Through his eyes we see the familiar denizens of London, both indigenous and multicultural, against a background of a metropolis described in terms of a taxi driver learning The Knowledge.
The tone of the novel is quite arch, reflecting the attitudes of the anti-hero, but also sees Boyd getting close to the style of Tom Sharpe, occasionally resulting in episodes which are laugh-out-loud funny. Fortunately it does not suffer from his frequent verbosity - the reader might mentally remove superfluous words from Solo, and superfluous passages from The Blue Afternoon - though it is rife with his trademark arcane vocabulary, which had me bringing up the Kindle dictionary numerous times. Boyd must be the only writer who uses "rebarbative" in all his books - or at all. (Speaking of Solo, the author shamelessly rehashes a passage from this book in his Bond pastiche, substituting 007 for Lorimer Black).
This, Boyd's seventh novel, was the first to be set in Britain, and one might reasonably expect it to be in the Queen's English. But the differences between British and American English seem to escape him. The effect is to make characters less plausible, less believable. Thus the British narrator of Restless thinks toilet cubicles are called stalls, a rise is a raise, and so forth, while the American narrator of The Blue Afternoon talks about sweet shops instead of candy stores, and alternates lifts with elevators. The second half of Solo is mostly written in a kind of lazy American English, giving the impression that Bond is so completely overawed by American culture that he is effectively brainwashed by it - an idea that would have Ian Fleming spinning in his grave.
It seems in this one there has been at least some editorial control. Early on, Lorimer's case, we are told, contains "bills'', and it is only a moderate paragraph later that we understand these are banknotes, not bills. But after that everything is fine until about three quarters of the way through (where, presumably, the editor nodded off), when petrol becomes gasoline, arse becomes ass, sanitary towels become napkins, a hospital trolley becomes a gurney, and (I kid you not) using a cashpoint becomes "receiving money from an automated teller machine".
So what's so good about this novel? Boyd spends a lot of time planning his books, then writes them out longhand before handing them over to a professional typist. The result is well thought out, often gripping, plots, and Armadillo is no exception. Once I bought the character of the anti-hero I was in, and the book became a page-turner. I did, though, have a problem with the ending, as I had problems with the endings of Solo (is Boyd begging to write a sequel?) and The Blue Afternoon, where I couldn't identify the murderer(s). Perhaps I' m just stupid, but here for the life of me I couldn't make head nor tail of the explanation of the financial skulduggery.
But in the final analysis this is a masterful character study of someone with a dirty job to do, whose sometimes humorous trials and tribulations we might go some way to identify with. Even taking into account the above reservations I thoroughly enjoyed it. Plotwise we get an alternation of perspective - albeit between the action and Lorimer's eclectic Book of Transfiguration - an alternation that we find in Restless, between past and present, but is absent from the somewhat prolix Blue Afternoon - and which allows the reader a refreshing change of perspective.
Regarding the Kindle edition, as pointed out by other reviewers, it is dogged by who-cares proofreading. If Penguin's print books bristled with so many typos they would have gone out of business long ago. Perhaps their new German masters can teach them something about accuracy and precision.