London, Burning: ‘A page-turning delight’
For his eighth novel, Anthony Quinn continues his noble tradition of producing a thumping good read
The publicity blurb for the film critic-turned-novelist Anthony Quinn’s new book — his eighth novel — describes him as “one of Britain’s finest contemporary writers”. This may come as a surprise to many, not because of any dearth of talent on Quinn’s part but because he has somewhat flown under the radar during his career. This is despite winning numerous awards, including the Authors’ Club award for Best First Novel for his 2009 first novel The Rescue Man, and his biggest success to date, 2015’s Curtain Call, has been adapted for film by none other than Patrick Marber, featuring a starry cast including Gemma Arterton, Colin Firth, and in the role of Jimmy Erskine, a lightly fictionalised version of the theatre critic James Agate, Simon Russell Beale.
Quinn’s novels all follow a relatively similar trajectory. They are all set in a specific historic period, ranging from the Victoria era (The Streets) to London, Burning’s keenly evoked depiction of the late Seventies, when Britain was a country of uncollected rubbish and the tail end of the Callaghan government, with the IRA striking fear into the nation. Many of them feature real-life characters barely disguised for creative purposes, such as the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan appearing as Nat Fane in Freya and Eureka or, here, the director Peter Hall being lightly guyed as the priapic gourmand Freddie Selves, in charge of the National Music Hall as he juggles responsibilities professional and personal.
And all of them, without exception, are that rarest and most unfashionable of things, a thumping good read. His new book carries on that noble tradition.
London, Burning is Quinn’s first novel for Little, Brown — the others were published by Jonathan Cape — but a change of publisher has done nothing to change his modus operandi. It focuses on four major characters including the aforementioned Selves; Vicky Tress, a policewoman who finds herself mired within a corruption scandal in the Met; Hannah Strode, a reporter on a paper not a million miles away from The Independent; and Callum Conlan, a Northern Irish academic who is regarded with faint suspicion because of his accent and background. Over the course of the novel, the characters interact with one another in both predictable and unexpected ways, as terrorist bombings, thwarted and otherwise, punctuate the narrative to explosive effect.
Quinn is a witty and erudite writer who manages to make his characters’ dialogue sound natural and engaging
If Quinn should be compared to any other novelist, William Boyd is a fair point of comparison. Like Boyd, Quinn is a witty and erudite writer who manages to make his characters’ dialogue sound natural and engaging, and whose literary name-dropping (the first paragraph of the second chapter contains two separate — and entirely appropriate — allusions to Philip Larkin) exemplifies the slight artificiality of the worlds that he creates. Quinn’s years spent as a film critic can be discerned from the cinematic sweep of his narratives and the speed with which he establishes his mise-en-scène; if you’re not gripped within the first ten or so pages, then you haven’t been paying attention.
This isn’t to say that London, Burning is a flawless novel. The storyline involving PC Tress is full of vivid and interesting details (I never knew that “plonk” was slang for a WPC) but it suffers from a sense of over-familiarity. I cannot be the only reader who is weary of tales of institutional corruption in the Met, even down to the character of a loquacious grass who helpfully dispenses plot-advancing titbits at the appropriate moment. It is also resolved in a frustratingly open-ended fashion, hinting at a follow-up novel if this one is a success. Some of Tress’s actions and motivations later in the book seem to stretch credibility, although it would be unfair to hint at why. And at least one major development in the book seemed slightly pat and convenient, hinging on a dramatic device — the writing of a letter by a high-ranking politician — that would have been seen as old hat as far back as the Victorian novelists that Quinn clearly reveres.
The title might seem to suggest a fierier conflagration than eventually takes place, but Quinn’s book is a page-turning delight
Yet such objections are ultimately niggling and somewhat mean-spirited when set against the novel’s greater achievements. Just as Erskine ends up dominating Curtain Call entirely — it’s nominally a murder mystery but it becomes a wonderful character study — so Selves is undoubtedly the most flamboyantly enjoyable figure depicted here. Anyone who has read Peter Hall’s Diaries, which depict his time running the National Theatre while dealing with union strikes, grumpy journalists and unreliable thespians, will relish his alter ego’s portrayal. Quinn sensibly borrows some of the most engaging stories about the real-life Hall, such as his ill-considered but lucrative decision to appear in an advert for Sanderson wallpaper, and places them in a highly entertaining dramatic context. Yet crucially, Selves remains a likeable and engaging character, despite his frequently dreadful behaviour, meaning that the reader sympathises with, rather than despairs at, his antics.
There are numerously beautifully drawn set-pieces throughout, ranging from an unintentional blind date to a High Tory New Year’s Eve party in the country, featuring an irritating party animal known as “Banger”. If Quinn flirts with tastelessness by depicting the late Airey Neave as a character called Anthony Middleton, a hardline hanger and flogger who sees the conflict with the Irish as an almost religious exercise in crusade, then this pays off splendidly in a well-observed and tense scene at a first-night party at the National Music Hall, showing the pervasive fear that Londoners felt at all times with the prospect of bombings and terrorism.
The title might seem to suggest a fierier conflagration than eventually takes place, but Quinn’s book is a page-turning delight. I can pay it no higher compliment than to say that, when I finished reading it, I felt almost sad that I was not going to be spending time with its characters any longer, and I hope that a sequel or continuation of this fascinating saga awaits in due course.
London, Burning is due to be published by Little, Brown on 8 April 2021
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