Friday, December 11, 2009

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd

I must admit a weakness for novels that use London as a strong and evocative setting. Vikram Seth's An Equal Music springs to mind as do several of the mysteries of P.D. James, maybe particularly Original Sin with it's venerable London publishing house set right on the Thames. I recall reading her early novel, Innocent Blood, before I ever visited the city, and I do know that a young woman being able to find a flat in London seemed one of the most glamorous things in the world--and this before I had the faintest idea of London prices.

William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms joins the ranks of those crime novels that use both London and the Thames to great effect. Here's the opening:

Let us start with the river--all things begin with the river, and we shall probably end there, no doubt--but let's wait and see how we go. Soon, in a minute or two, a young man will come and stand by the river's edge, here at Chelsea Bridge, in London.

And of course that was enough to hook me right in. I will not give away whether things do or do not end at the river, but the river is very much a part of the landscape through much of the book. It reveals itself in different aspects to different people, reflecting their inner lives as well as outer weather.

A chance encounter leads our hero, Adam Kindred, to become deeply implicated in a crime. His own decisions in response to this lead him further afield, until he finds himself looking at London from the lower strata, a view of the city that few tourists get to see. Meanwhile, there are some pretty major corporate shenanigans going on, and of course someone who's been sent to clean up untidy loose ends like, say, witnesses. Although at times this seems fairly standard stuff, the pacing keeps it lively.

What I find more interesting, and what I think most readers will, is not just the way Adam hides out in a vast and in many ways impersonal city, but the way in which he comes to accept that riding the river of chance, and being able to let go of the old life as necessary, is really all we have. There's a clever, ironic twist when another character has to make the same decision, but I'll leave that to you to find.

As it turns out, there are more than a few people in this book hiding from what they once were. But, as is pointed out in the novel, 600 people are reported missing in Britain every week. That a few of their fictional counterparts find their way between these pages does not in the end seem too improbable.


  1. What other London crime novels are on your list? I'd recommend John Lawton based on my reading of Second Violin. My current reading, James R. Benn's Billy Boyle, offers in its opening chapters a nice innocent American's view of wartime London.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  2. Unfortunately, my brain isn't probably organized in a way that will pull titles up by geography. I do have the Lawton on my to read list, and the James Benn sounds interesting. I've seen his name without getting further than that.

    Tiger in the Smoke is a classic, though, and I think the one that first clued me into Margery Allingham. Have to think about other crime fiction. Possession by A.S. Byatt isn't really a crime novel, but it does have a mystery element, and some resonant London moments.

    Oh, another author who I want to get to is Michael Robotham, who I think sets some of his novels in London. I've heard good things about them.

    And of course, there is Conan Doyle. Talk about creating an atmosphere.

  3. Yep, even COnan Doyle's harshest critic (or at least the harshest I've read) concedes that he was good on atmosphere.