A certain sort of male novelist will always aspire to be Joseph Conrad. The seedy cosmopolitanism of his fiction and its worldly, morally compromised protagonists — those European merchant seamen negotiating far-flung colonies — are an attractive counterpoint to the unmanly business of staying indoors to write a book.
Toby Vieira’s entertaining, globe-hopping debut tale of diamond smugglers wears its debt to the great man on its sleeve notes. These tout Vieira’s ‘passion’ for Conrad’s work, while his title recalls Charles Marlow, the narrator of Heart of Darkness, sent down an unnamed African river to retrieve the rogue ivory trader Mr Kurtz.
Marlow’s Landing is in this case a settlement in the interior of St Andrew’s, a fictional country on the Caribbean coast. ‘Ain’t no good never come out of Marlow’s,’ counsels a punter at a nearby brothel. ‘You pay me a thousand bucks, no way I’m going to Marlow’s.’ But this doesn’t dissuade the narrator, an unnamed Antwerp-based English accountant, working for a prominent ‘minerals’ dynasty (‘the Indians’). He is travelling upriver to Marlow’s on the promise of rather more than a thousand bucks, sent on an off-the-books mission to retrieve ‘a big pink stone’ by a rogue diamond trader, Goldhaven.
Goldhaven’s backstory, related through an extended flashback, is lent authority by Vieira’s own past ‘close professional interest in precious stones’. We see Goldhaven grifting African mining concerns and tribal elders. He may have ‘never knowingly started a war’ but the knowingness of that ‘knowingly’ suggests Goldhaven knows more about the trouble he causes than he lets on.
Sure enough, we flash forward again to discover that the narrator’s vanity has landed him as the patsy in a double cross that Goldhaven is attempting to pull on some Russian government goons.
The novel’s brisk, blokeish present tense (‘Goldhaven has found what the boys back home call a Lolita. A seam that no one has mined’) becomes more fevered. As the narrator deals with the fallout from Goldhaven’s con, Marlow’s Landing begins to resemble his sweaty nightmares in the St Andrew’s rainforest. Belgian Feds and Caribbean mobsters taking the place of the ‘crawling legions’ of insects outside his tent, wrestling ‘each other for a view to a kill’.
There is a lot going on for such a slim book, sometimes a little too much. But then again much that Conrad, stern old coot though he was, might have approved of.