If there’s anything full-time novelists hate more than a celebrity muscling in on their turf, it’s the celebrity doing such a good job that it seems as if anybody could write fiction. Happily for the pros, this isn’t a problem with Briefs Encountered. Not only is the book full of obvious flaws, but it also makes the whole business of novel-writing look unbelievably difficult. There is, it turns out, so much to do — what with plot, characters, dialogue and tone all to be created and, worse still, made coherent. And then there’s all those pesky sentences you have to string together…
In fact, Clary’s set-up is quite promising. Richard Stent, a middle-aged actor, his once-stellar career in gentle decline, moves with his boyfriend to Goldenhurst, a house in Kent that he buys from a dissolute comedian called Julian Clary. More significantly, between 1926 and 1956, Goldenhurst was the home of Noël Coward. (In real life, Clary still lives there.) From there, the novel alternates between Richard’s first-person narrative and a diligently researched account of Coward in his pomp.
At first, then, it looks as if we might be in for a Hollinghurst-style meditation on gay life across the generations; but that fails to materialise. Instead, what we get is … well, it’s not easy to say. As the title suggests, there are elements of light sex comedy, complete with double entendres. Yet, these are so sporadic that they seem to be there only as a sop to Clary’s fans — or from sheer force of habit. Elsewhere, he throws in a period whodunit, showbiz satire, some heartfelt romance, an old-fashioned ghost story, a fair bit about interior design and a climax straight out of Stephen King. The result feels less like a rich combination of genres, and more like a collection of unfinished sketches for the various directions the novel could have taken.
The characters are all over the place too, especially Richard himself, who’s either cheerfully rude or unbelievably priggish depending on what Clary requires of him. And the same inconsistency even applies to Richard’s past. At one stage, he tells us that when he became famous, ‘Along with the fame … came the sex. I went through a wildly promiscuous stage.’ Fifty pages later, he laments that ‘The drawback of success was that I had to curb my earlier promiscuity.’
As for those pesky sentences, Clary’s default position is a surprisingly old-school writerliness where ‘endeavoured’ is preferred to ‘tried’, and if he’s used ‘decanter’ a few sentences ago, he now has to say ‘the cut-class receptacle’. (Clary, perhaps significantly, is a regular on Just a Minute.) Quite often, though, he simply shifts into auto-pilot — so that lust is ‘unbridled’, grips are ‘vice-like’, cads reveal their caddishness by means of ‘a cruel streak about [the] mouth’ and suspicion and jealousy ‘rear their ugly heads’.
Oddly enough, the effect of such plucky struggles with language — and with the writing of fiction generally — can sometimes be rather endearing. Even so, one of Clary’s better jokes should surely have been rejected as too dangerous a hostage to fortune. ‘I know some lovely people at Ebury,’ Richard’s agent tells him at one point, ‘who will print any old nonsense and give you a whacking big advance.’