Tony White’s latest novel begins for all the world like a police procedural, following the delightfully named sleuth Rex King as he investigates the grisly murder of man in a Covent Garden theatre. Rex, who has a penchant for fish and chips, laments the tedium of police bureaucracy and frets over a cover-up relating to a death in custody.There is collegial bonhomie, conspiratorial winking and sardonic banter aplenty.
The novel then cuts away to an altogether different setting. In an obscure rural enclave in southern France in the mid-1980s, a young Englishman on his gap-year fraternises with a gang of charismatic dissidents in a bohemian commune. They debate postwar French history and the miners’ strike, and bond over music: ‘Punk or new wave was both a proxy and a crucible in and of itself [for] the discussion of ideas.’
Their discussions trace an eclectic collage of cultural memes, ranging from the French Revolutionary calendar and the ‘Kilroy was here’ tags daubed in myriad global locations by US servicemen, to cult 1980s bands like Crass and The Stranglers. The Fountain in the Forest is a slow-burner. White lulls the reader into absorbed bewilderment before weaving the strands together with all the deftness of a seasoned crime writer.
This is, in essence, a tale of two internationalisms: the British and French police are in cahoots, their liaison every bit as borderless as the counter-culture they are up against. The book’s affectionate Francophilia — distilled in the ’Allo ’Allo-style of the communards’ dialogue — pays timely homage, in a far subtler way than certain self-styled Brexit novels, to the strength of British ties with the continent. (The throwback effect is embellished by a formal constraint inspired by the French avantgardist collective, Oulipo: the text includes a ‘mandated vocabulary’ of words gleaned from Guardian crosswords of 1985.)
The author’s sympathy for the milieu of crusties, hippies and punks is implicit but unobtrusive; indeed one of the most striking features of this charmingly odd novel is its consistently phlegmatic narrative voice. Whether ruminating on the declining fortunes of the Pizza Express restaurant chain (once synonymous with middle-class respectability, now sadly déclassé) or recounting a brutal police crackdown, The Fountain in the Forest is told with an obituarist’s unsentimental deference. Enjoy it as a noir entertainment or as an evocative picture postcard from the past.