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Tory Book Club: The Devil's Tune

To all (both) of you who have bombarded (emailed) me with desperate requests (idle queries) about the blog, I haven't posted for a year or so for the exact same reason that I wouldn't spend time and energy detailing day by day the onslaught of a terminal disease. After a certain point I found it became too dispiriting to keep chronicling and reacting to so much malevolence, vandalism and predatory greed in government, served up with self-righteous posturing and naked dishonesty. The funny thing is that this kind of venality is what people tend to accuse any government of, so when you encounter the real thing it takes a while to realise the scale of what you're seeing.

Still, in a spirit of conciliation with and curiosity about our rightwing overlords, I have decided to try to understand, as much as I can, the thinking that underpins their actions. After all, that thinking will underpin whatever wheezes the next few governments come up with as well, given that all the parties are picking their MPs from ever smaller gene pools of hive-mind wonks, Etonian princelings and self-made maniacs determined to show they're no less ruthless than the Etonian princelings.

Rather than wade through their showboating pronouncements in Parliament (they tend to play to a particularly unlovely gallery, and anyway that would just be too much of a busman's holiday), in an occasional series I shall be approaching them through their published works, because hey, these wrists won't slit themselves.

1. Iain Duncan Smith, The Devil’s Tune, 2003

This novel was published a week after Iain Duncan Smith was ousted from the leadership of his party in a vote of no confidence that only he had thought he would win. This meant its reviewers felt obliged to preface their verdicts with phrases like

“I honestly wish I didn't have to say this, because it feels like kicking a man when he is down…”
before getting stuck in:

“but, really, it's terrible”. [Sam Leith, 2003]
All these years later, though, now that his career is thoroughly revived and he is once again loved and revered by his party, as well as celebrated as a vigorous campaigner for the rights of the working poor and the disabled as well as an organisational genius, perhaps it’s time to revisit this volume and give it a fairer assessment.

Probably this thriller’s most disappointing aspect, and it’s one of the most immediately apparent, is that it’s only intermittently hilarious. It is intriguing and revealing only because of what it lacks: passion, (deliberate) humour or the slightest trace element of spark or zest. If software had generated it you might murmur one or two vague words of encouragement as you reset its parameters, but as the work of a breathing human it’s baffling.

One of the novel’s most celebrated passages is the couple of paragraphs the publishers chose to plaster over the back of the dustjacket to give a flavour of its racy style and entice the prospective reader. In full:

As he came to the last box, he rubbed his tired eyes and yawned. Placing it on the chair in the centre of the storeroom, he looked at it carefully and was about to turn away when something in the bottom right-hand corner caught his eye. A closer look revealed that some paint had cracked. Cursing, he fetched an anglepoise lamp and positioned it over the corner of the picture. Under its sharper light, he could see that an area of about two square inches had been affected and that while some paint had cracked, a smaller section was in a worse state with some parts already flaking away. He took out his handkerchief and very gently brushed away some loose pieces of paint. Instead of seeing a primed canvas below as expected, he was surprised to see more paint, most of which seemed to be intact. Slightly puzzled, he searched through his desk until he found a large magnifying glass and a paper knife.

Through the magnifying glass, he could see that the remaining paint underneath was quite different and that it appeared to be darker. He peeled back some more of the flaking paint, then put his magnifying glass down slowly and walked back to a seat in the corner of the storeroom. He sat down heavily, the realisation of what was in front of him hitting him hard. There was no doubt about it: the Licatta had been painted over another painting.
Even by the low standards of this novel, that’s a suffocating lump of verbiage. Its selection as teaser on the back of the book seems almost sarcastic, a suspicion of mine that’s heightened by the publisher’s choice of photo on the front:

Money on fire has very little connection with the plot but could be seen as prescient coming from a firm that spent money printing a novel so harshly derided on initial publication that it never even crept out into paperback.

The novel is somewhat encumbered by its plot, which you suspect he hoped would be called “intricate” but in fact makes less and less sense as it limps along. An unlikely sequence of dark events from World War 2 turns out to have Consequences. A scandal threatens to engulf the US presidency but then comes nowhere close to doing so. Providing the “thriller” portion of the tale, almost anyone the hero talks to is dead within half an hour of his leaving them, but the reader never sees it happen. Presumably he’s being framed, perhaps by the guy who appeared to die offstage earlier in the book. Or could our narrator prove unreliable, with the author playing with the notion that the hero might be deluding himself about his part in these people’s deaths? No, of course not, he’s being framed by the dead guy. That’s a crucial plot point, but what do you care? You’re never going to read it.

Incidentally, given that Iain Duncan Smith’s Department for Work and Pensions is remarkable for the scepticism and indeed outright hostility it displays to even the existence of disability and sickness, it’s notable that the elderly character who dies of cancer (SPOILERS) is revealed actually to have maliciously faked his own death, turns up at the end trying to shoot the hero and dies, for real, in a swarm of police bullets.

To be fair, there’s sporadic (though scant) entertainment to be had from Smithy’s tin ear. One of his major characters is a US presidential candidate called Kelp, presenting himself as the honest alternative to the corrupt incumbent. Our author shows no sign of being aware that there might be anything amusing about the resulting campaign banner: “Keep it Clean with Kelp!”

And I can only hope that, like Charles Dickens before him, IDS can sometimes be persuaded to give readings of his own work. I would part with good money to hear his performance as Maloney the taxi driver:

“So, Mr Maloney,” Jasinski began, “the detective here tells me you’ve got some information.”

“Well, L’tenant, I saw your notice on the board at work—I thought maybe, maybe it was the dame I picked up. Jeez! I hope nothing happened to her…” His bloodshot eyes were half-closed.

“Why don’t you take it from the top?” Jasinski leaned back in his seat and waited.

“Like I said to the detective, you know, she was a classy dame, picked her up, must have been her office at around 7.20 pm, and took her down to this shithole in Tribeca. At first I thought, she must’ve got the wrong address, couldn’t figure what a dame like her was doin’ going to a place like this. When we gets there, she wants me to wait but in that neighbourhood you don’t know what might happen, so I says no, but then she handed me 50 bucks. So, I look at the money and I cruised.” He twitched his mouth, as though seeking approval and recognition. “Well, like I said, she goes into the place—she got balls, that dame! Then she came out ten minutes later and I pulls up. That’s when she asked me to go back in with her! But that’s when she pulls out another 50 bucks. Well, like I said, she was OK and it seemed pretty quiet so I says, yeah, why not? Then the next thing I know, I’m helping this guy, who’s got some whack on the head, out to the cab—should a had an ambulance, looked pretty bad. Anyway, she screams out an address and we goes up to St Teresa’s, where I dropped them off.”
If you found yourself wondering, the book is set around the time when it was written, the early 2000s. Bonus points for anyone who can demonstrate how to twitch their mouth as though seeking approval and recognition, or indeed give a satisfactory explanation of how to pronounce “L’tenant”.

There’s more great characterisation with the tart with a heart, Ariadne (SOLE BLACK CHARACTER KLAXON), who dispenses a memorable gobbet of homely folk wisdom as she introduces the hero and heroine to an escape route:

”All right,” Ari opened the door slowly, “the roof!” She saw Laura’s eyes open wide. “Hey! Don’t worry, I know all these blocks; when you work on your back, you always know which way is up.”
Along with the comic relief, IDS could have done with reining in the stage directions, as demonstrated by the approval-seeking mouth twitching mentioned above, or by this gripping sequence:

Jack Douglas sat in his chair, his feet up on one corner of his desk while he studied the large pile of documents. As he read, an old grandfather clock chimed the hour. He continued to read each paper carefully, marking, underlining and then occasionally writing notes on a pad beside him. Finally, taking his glasses off, he sat still for some minutes before leaning forward and, taking his feet off the desk, he turned in his chair, pulled the pad of paper across the desk and started to write.

He was puzzled.
Perhaps unfairly, I have removed the paragraph break that occurs at “Finally”. I resented it as it contained a false implication that something might actually start happening. Reviewers have surmised before that this book clearly lacked an editor, and nothing points to that more clearly than the fact that you could seamlessly splice these paragraphs to read “Jack Douglas was puzzled” and lose nothing.

Another, admittedly less spectacular, example involves Detective Sergeant Mackie, a Scot seconded to the NYPD to catch our hero:

“Aye, well, as I said, only good solid, boring police work will sort it,” Mackie nodded as though agreeing with himself.
(Or as if agreeing with someone else. Or as if indicating a direction. He nodded, is what we’re saying.)

Our narrator assures us that Mackie’s stolid, even boring approach is what makes him excellent at his job. In fact, our narrator is at such pains to assure us of this that if making a speech in Parliament our narrator would have to declare an interest. And like any MP, DS Mackie is given to flashes of leaden “observational humour” that would shame Michael McIntyre and leave the kindest-intentioned audience stony-faced:

Why did everyone always hunch their shoulders when it rained? Mackie mused, it didn’t change how wet they got. They knew it, yet they still did it. He smiled as they scurried past…
Because that stops it going down your neck, Mackie. Have you not tried it? Do you not have a neck? Wait, you’re in your 50s and you haven’t even come up with a theory for this? What kind of policeman are you anyway?
“You’ll be back, John, that much I do know. You’ll be back,” Ralph muttered, as he watched the car disappear up the drive.
Ralph is the uncle of the novel’s hero, John Grande. Ralph spends the last two-thirds of the book sedated in a hotel room, a situation that, as the novel goes on, the reader comes to envy. He does the above muttering in an early chapter but we never find out why he's so convinced John will go back there, as John never does. On the other hand, that line does bring the chapter neatly to a close as if foreshadowing something, as it said—you get the sense—on page 26 of IDS’s dog-eared copy of Write Your Own Novel (If You Must).

DS Mackie is also lumbered with a spot of foreshadowing:

Mackie’s years of experience gave him a strange feeling about this gallery case. Things didn’t seem to fit together and that troubled him.
This is the larval stage of a metaphor that bursts free of its cocoon once he's been sent to New York:

“The trouble is, it’s like a 50-piece jigsaw—we’ve got the pieces but they all seem to be from a different puzzle.”
... and then later, feeling that it might not have got itself quite right, mutates again:

It was like finding a piece for a jigsaw only to realise that no one knew where the rest of the puzzle was.
If I were DS Mackie's line manager I'd be recommending more time spent out and about in the fresh air, especially the rain, and less time pissing about with jigsaws. It's not healthy.

And then there’s a denouement where lots of people fire guns and some of them die and at this point no-one cares; seriously, not a single reader who’s made it this far has given a flying one about the plot. You’re as indifferent to the outcome for these (let’s call them) characters as an ATOS assessor gazing cod-eyed at a crying woman with advanced MS as you mark her file “fit for work”. Reading the book is an eerie experience as it feels as if it’s attempting to mimic the relationships and communication that humans have with each other but the reference points are too confused and out of date, and the style too uncertain, to convince. Reviewer Peter Preston was enthralled by the way that

His prose ranges from lumpen to berserkly lush as a “whispering rush of cluttered memories spun round like a vortex”.
So is IDS some kind of isolated humanoid who was only ever having a stab at replicating human emotions in the first place, or did his grievance at the savagery meted out to his meagre artistic efforts fuel his rage and paranoia and fill him with the need to exact his revenge on someone weaker, like a certain someone who also had it in for those forced out to the fringes of society who thought they deserved “inclusion”? Ultimately, tempting though these scenarios might be to Iain Duncan Smith’s one or two detractors, the truth may, fittingly, be far simpler and more banal: the one novel he had in him is testament to the fact that he’s just an extremely bad liar.

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