US publishers Valancourt Books have set out to revive neglected novels from both sides of the Atlantic. After seeing my review of Colin Spencer's recent volume of memoirs they invited me to review PANIC, his highly acclaimed and deeply weird novel set in 1960s Brighton. This short book (160 pages) is centred on a grief-stricken father whose young daughter was murdered a year ago. Rod Johnson now haunts Brighton's seedier streets and pubs, hoping to find a clue that will lead him to Lucy's killer.
The story is narrated in successive chapters by Rod, by his 'damaged' girlfriend Emma and by her creepy uncle Woody. With the disappearance of Madeleine McCann seven years ago still in the news, together with revelations about predatory priests and celebrities, it's a bold gesture by the publishers to reprint a book that attempts to get inside the head of a child-molester, which is what Spencer does in two very disturbing chapters. But I guess LOLITA would not be an easy read today, if it ever was.
I'm a big admirer of Mr Spencer. I rate THE TYRANNY OF LOVE, the second in his quartet A GENERATION, one of the greatest modern 'relationship' novels, up there with James Baldwin's ANOTHER COUNTRY and John Updike's COUPLES. I'm not sure how I missed PANIC when it came out in 1971. In the early chapters his characters all seem to be speak with a rather similar 'voice'. In the Introduction he admits to an influence by Faulkner, but what I picked up were echoes of Forster, which makes the back-story seem more Edwardian than post-war. The shorter chapters in the second half are more dynamic, and the climactic confession scene is another gruelling read. The subject matter makes this book as 'challenging' for the reader as it must have been for the author.
[Reviewer is the author of THE BEXHILL MISSILE CRISIS]