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Ghosts from the past

22 May 2006

9:49 AM

22 May 2006

9:49 AM

A Stain on the Silence Andrew Taylor

Penguin/ Michael Joseph, pp.343, 12.99

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Andrew Taylor has written on a wide range of subjects, but it is for his crime thrillers that he has become famous and won so many awards. By my estimate he’s written 26, which is just under half of the 59 books he’s credited with by Amazon. Until now I have only read one of these and it was excellent. The American Boy is a long, gripping mystery novel of the kind that Wilkie Collins invented to delight the Victorians, and so I looked forward to Taylor’s new one, A Stain on the Silence.

When James’s phone rings and he hears a tiny voice say ‘Jamie’ he would have been wise to have rung off immediately. Only Lily Murthington has ever called him that and she had almost ruined his life. Now she’s dying and wants to see him. Is that why he goes? To say his farewells? Or is it the tempting pull of the dangerous past he once thought glamorous and now feels is safe to revisit? He should have known better. Lily, even at death’s door, brings the past back alive and kicking to damage him as much as ever. She tells him that he is the father of Kate, her daughter, and he will soon get a visit from her as she’s in trouble. Also, she reminds him of the serious crime he once committed which the police are still investigating.

James’s involvement had not been only with Lily but with her family. He’d been at school with her stepson, Carlo, even then a bullying monster, who took him home for the holidays as James had globe-trotting parents and no real place to go. The Murthingtons proved an exciting substitute. Carlo’s father turns out to be a kind but ageing man which is why Lily made James her lover when he was only 16. It’s their love- child, Kate, who arrives now at James’s house as Lily had warned him she would to tell him she’s pregnant and her brother, Carlo, has murdered her lover and plans to kill her, too. James must do something.

Told at a cracking pace, this is a confused book to unravel, packed with detail and incident and with an ever-growing cast to complicate matters. It’s made even harder because everyone lies constantly. It’s a reflex action, like blinking. James’s wife, Nicky, gets dragged in and says she’ll leave him, until she meets the motley crew her husband has inherited from his childhood and becomes more sympathetic. It doesn’t last. In the final bloody scene just after they hear Lily has died, Nicky is one of the several witnesses to a murder which, gruesome though it is, ties up many loose ends in a workmanlike fashion and from which she flees like the wind. The return of peace and calm for which she may have hoped will never make this lot into a nest of singing birds. They don’t do calm.

It’s unfair on Andrew Taylor that I’d read The American Boy first and expected more than this very readable, fast-moving thriller. But there is perhaps a hint that he too has had enough of these destructive misfits, of whom James’s daughter Kate is a fair example, when he describes her as ‘one of those people who roll like grenades through the empty rooms of other people’s lives’. A dispiriting and world-weary thought.

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