Sadly, I can’t see it catching on, but one of the notable things about Jonathan Lee’s new novel is that it features a fleeting appearance by John Redwood. The late Geoffrey Howe is there too, distractedly eating fishcakes as he holds forth on the difference between humans and animals. Redwood, Howe and the rest of Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet have gathered in Brighton’s Grand Hotel on the eve of the Tory conference in October 1984.
In Belfast, Dan, one of the Provisional IRA’s brightest young stars, has been given the job of helping real-life bomber Patrick Magee plant the device that would kill five people — there has always been speculation that Magee had an accomplice who was never caught. This, though, is no Day of the Jackal retread. Lee’s fictional recreation of the events leading up to the bombing concentrates on the lives — often the inner lives — of his three protagonists: Dan, the bomber, Moose, the deputy manager of the Grand, and his 18-year-old daughter, Freya.
What’s clear straight away is how good Lee is on character — above all on their rueful flashes of self-knowledge. Moose is a terrific creation, a man once described as Brighton’s best young sportsman. Thirty years on, with his dreams of glory gone, he spends his days carefully arranging his tie so that it conceals the ‘Deputy’ on his ‘Deputy General Manager’ badge, sorting out endless tiny disasters in the hotel — semen on the curtains, a guest concussed by a falling showerhead — and trying to pacify the chef, Harry, whose signature dish of ‘Strawberry risotto topped with Parmegiano Stardust’ would be enough to make anyone go on hunger strike.
When Moose secures a block booking for 150 rooms his future looks as bright as it is secure. But of course it’s not to be; murder and mutilation lie just around the corner. As well as being good on character, Lee has a memorable — and generally unforced — turn of phrase: the ‘wind-swollen trees’, the ‘awful embroidery’ of the dying Bobby Sands’s ribcage. He can be very funny too; there’s a wonderfully wrought scene here when Moose has to look after a three-year-old boy called Engelbert.
Where Lee’s less good is on plot. There’s too much backstory, the focus tends to drift and the ending — in which the explosion at the Grand is cross-cut with Dan’s own house in Belfast being firebombed — feels far too formulaic. Yet the faults of High Dive are mainly faults of ambition rather than the lack of it. This is Lee’s third novel and he’s plainly determined to break new ground with each one. His first, Who is Mr Satoshi?, was set in Tokyo; the second, Joy, traced the last day in the life of a successful young lawyer.
Personally, I can forgive a book a lot which so deftly captures the boorishness of a Tory conference — ‘Where are your other cognacs?’ one incredulous brute bellows at the barman — and has a nerve-stricken Moose addressing Keith Joseph as ‘Your Excellency’. Joseph’s reaction is pretty good too: ‘Keith Joseph stared at him, a face full of tortured intensity. His features thinned into a wince and he wiped the wince with a conference-blue napkin.’