A few years ago, after a lifetime of wearing white shirts through which the straps of my white bra were plainly visible, I discovered a remarkable fact: if you wear a pink or even a crimson bra underneath a pale shirt, it doesn’t show. For several weeks I passed on this gem of truth to all my women friends. Was my enthusiasm met with relish, gratitude? It was not. They all said the same thing in response: ‘Oh, didn’t you know? I’ve always known that.’
I expected it would be the same in the case of Andrew Taylor. While reading The Silent Boy I was so overexcited by its brilliance that I asked numbers of friends if they’d ever come across Taylor’s work. Surely I was alone in the world in not having heard of this paragon? But the strange truth is that his name did not ring any bells, at least among the sort of book buyers who would purchase anything by Hilary Mantel, say, or Rose Tremain.
And yet this book, which begins in Paris in 1792, is every bit as fine. It may be that devotees of crime fiction know better, since Taylor has won awards with names like the Diamond Dagger and the New Blood Dagger, as well as a scroll from the Mystery Writers of America (one wonders whether these gongs are actual blood-stained daggers and scrolls, like on a pirate ship). Perhaps, then, his work has become becalmed in the inlet of historical thrillers, preventing the readers of so-called literary fiction from happening upon him?
The Silent Boy is so good that it is sure to attract universally rave reviews which, it is to be hoped, will billow his sails. Now that the line between chick lit and high fiction is growing ever more wobbly and indistinct, it is high time that really well-written mysteries and thrillers stopped being plonked on booksellers’ tables alongside Agatha Christie and biographies of Fred West. Scandinavians have cottoned onto this already. Patricia Highsmith devoted a career to it. Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine, has also attempted to break out of the confines expected of the genre. It is not simply a case of whydunnits taking the high road, while whodunnits take the low. A masterpiece such as Great Expectations asks both questions, but no one ever describes it as a thriller.
‘Say nothing. Not a word to anyone. Whatever you see. Whatever you hear. Do you understand? Say nothing. Ever.’ These are the opening lines of The Silent Boy, a threat whispered during the pre-Revolution bloodbath in which the child’s mother is cudgelled before his eyes.
The boy is called Charles, he is 11, and he does as he is told. He does not speak throughout the whole book, but we are privy to his thoughts and above all his fears. Fleeing his mother’s Paris apartment, Charles is taken into the care of a French count (who may or may not be the boy’s natural father) and his sidekick, a highly educated but rather sinister German physician.
Brought to England, Charles is confined again and again. He finds himself trapped in a large country house in the west country, where a kind vicar’s sister reads him Robinson Crusoe. He is kidnapped and locked in a the cupboard of an abandoned boathouse, a hessian sack put over his head. He escapes, only to become the lone occupant of a house in what is now Bloomsbury. All the time he is terrified, of the dark, of the tree that taps against his window, of the return of the man who butchered his mother.
Running in parallel to the child’s dismal adventures is the story of one Edward Savill, an English gentleman and the erstwhile husband of Charles’s mother. This unfortunate woman is the one weak element in the book. She repeats a rather repulsive sexual invocation at least three times, but is given almost no other lines: all we know is that she is manipulative and wanton and possibly a spy.
Many years earlier she ran off to Italy with a lover, but Savill remained married to her and therefore Charles is now his responsibility. If he can find him in time to save him.
Many elements of The Silent Boy bring Dickens to mind: the ill-treated child, the streets of old London, the kindness of strangers, the excellent storytelling, even the names of some the characters. It is utterly gripping, extremely well executed and suspenseful to the last. Readers of these pages more observant than I may have already spotted the name as a regular crime fiction reviewer. But for the rest here it is, to remember: Andrew Taylor.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £13.99. Tel: 08430 600033