Mark Mills is known for his historical and literary crime novels, including The Savage Garden, The Information Officer and House of the Hanged. The Long Shadow is written in a different mode. It is set in a highly recognisable present; it is a clever, teasing hybrid of genres (psychological thriller, dark comedy, Pardoner’s Tale and dystopia); and it is fraught with tensions about money, class and the super-rich.
The protagonist, Ben, is a well-nigh washed up screenwriter in his early forties. His wife has fallen in love with a successful businessman; Ben has been forced out into a seedy flat in a demoralising part of London. He passes the time enumerating the opportunities he has squandered and worrying about his relationship with his teenage son. As a professional writer he is, quite naturally, mired in debt and tormented by self-loathing.
When a rich backer emerges for his latest screenplay, Ben can hardly believe his luck. What earnest, scabrous author has not wished a thousand times for a fairy godmother, or father, to alight from a cloud and save him? Ben’s sense of relief, even vindication, is short-lived, however. The fairy godfather turns out to be a friend from school, Victor Sheldon, who has prospered in adulthood and become a ‘hedge-fund whizz’, his riches ‘way off the scale’. Twice emasculated, once by mid-life failure and now by comparison with his rich contemporary, Ben is forced, nonetheless, to accept Victor’s offer of patronage. He drives off on his clapped-out motorbike to Victor’s country estate in Oxfordshire, where he starts rewriting his script.
Mills relishes the lavish surroundings and the sense of mounting unease. He casts Ben adrift in a shadowy realm of Ionic columns, ‘smooth stone flags… elaborate stuccowork’, ‘Rococo divans upholstered in yellow damask’, ‘yawning fireplaces’, the tasteful ‘counterplay of old and new’. Wide-eyed with envy, Ben drives Victor’s cars and sails his boats, and even acts as a business go-between. He tries to forget that he and Victor had an ambivalent and eventually painful friendship at school; he aims at skittering on the opulent surface. With undignified eagerness, he embarks on a romance with another beneficiary of Victor’s patronage, a sculptress called Mo.
Mills writes superb naturalistic dialogue and much of the comedy of the book derives from the gap between what characters think and what they say. He is also very good at telling anomalies: the sideways glance, the hint, the shadows lurking at the edge of vision. He carefully warps various heritage set pieces, as if they are being viewed through a distorting lens — picnics, boating parties, cricket matches. Even as Ben desperately tries to believe in the idyll, Mills torments him with further incongruities.
Underneath there is a lovely, poignant strand about how hope sustains us even as we are progressively wasted by the years, and how middle age is harsh in its revelations, as some are raised to greatness, and others are mocked and deflated. This is a taut, gripping psychodrama and a wonderful, twisted take on the ‘wild divergences’ of contemporary Britain.