Wednesday, October 26, 2011

One's a master spy, the other an Oxford scholar, yet neither can use a standard reference book

The recent conclusion of my time as a perpetual student means that I can now occasionally read books purely for pleasure, not as part of my studies. In particular, I can read the occasional novel, an indulgence largely foregone these last few years.

But perhaps because of years of studying obscure monographs and critiquing their arguments, I find myself doing the same with novels – reading them against the grain and searching for the weak link in the plot that undermines the rest of the story.

A case in point is the spy thriller Restless by William Boyd. The plot concerns the exploits of a woman working for British intelligence during the second world war and her revelation of this secret past to her daughter thirty years later as she seeks to resolve unfinished business.

To link the two time periods, Boyd has the mother (and spy) enlist the help of her daughter (an Oxford Phd student) to find the whereabouts of her wartime spymaster and lover who betrayed both her and his country. The only information they have to go on is a memory that at some point he received an honour, either a peerage or a knighthood. To track him down, the daughter has to consult her well-connected thesis supervisor, who seems to know everything there is to know about the great and good (or rich and bad).

At this point I groan and sigh. Our protagonist has been trained in the arts of espionage and can remember the most obscure details of what she has done and seen. Is it likely that she would be quite so vague about what honours have been conferred on someone she had once been in love with and who had tried to have her killed? Is it possible that neither our spy nor her Oxford scholar daughter would be aware that everyone who receives a peerage or knighthood is listed in Who’s Who? And just in case the villain tries to wrong-foot everyone by changing his name on being enobled, Who’s Who cross-references noble titles and family name. Each entry also gives an address for each subject, which would have relieved our heroines of the need for the elaborate piece of deception they engage in to be able to follow their quarry home and find out where he lives. It would have been so much easier to visit their local public library.

Marvellous things reference books! Yet I suppose if Boyd had allowed his characters use of them, the plot wouldn’t have been quite as exciting and I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of reading a whole book in a single sitting, something I haven’t done for many years!

No comments: