Taken with cheerful goodwill from the author's blog. I'd been waiting for this book for a while from the crowdfunding website Unbound. You know them; they get authors to pitch a book idea and then invite the public to support it, only publishing if it hits its targets. Perhaps because my tastes run to the bizarre, or because I'm seduced by quirks and weird conceits, lack of funding means I've lost the opportunity to read a couple of books I would have loved to have seen in print, but this isn't one of them. That is, this one made it. And if there's one thing I love about a book from Unbound, more than the fact that you get a useful pdf or Nook or Kindle e-version of it to download to your preferred reading device, more than the fact that this particular book is by a man whose writing I usually thoroughly enjoy, and who I found out fairly recently is only two (even arguably one) step removed from me*, is the simple, unreproducible and peculiar joy of hearing a brand new hardback book squeak, as if in barely contained excitement, the first time you open it. The glue binding stressed for the very first time; pages gently protesting new forces. Next to smelling a new book (or old book, or any book), it's my favourite thing. Delightfully, The Mule squeaked like a distressed shrew.
Thus far, touch wood, I have not been disappointed by what has followed, and thankfully (but unsurprisingly) Quantick preserves my remarkable run of picking winners. Jacky, the titular mule, is an appealing curmudgeon, a cynical, perhaps hubristic recluse, existing in and for a simple life, his only problems the translations of tricky passages from Europe's least respected authors, and antipathy for his mother's ageing dog. Into his life steps, inexplicably, a young, beautiful woman with a problem tailor made for his reluctantly inquisitive mind and particular skill set–an untranslatable book, which has, startlingly, pictures showing the young woman's own death. When she disappears, hours later, Jacky is drawn into a murder investigation and an unlikely partnership with a bizarre and dangerously unhinged writer as they race across Paris to uncover the truth. Of course, it all goes tits up.
It's hard to imagine the writer behind such critically acclaimed comedic successes as The Thick Of It and Veep penning a serious mystery novel, and as such I began the book looking for the punchline, for the next joke, pun, and if I'm honest, long sweary rant, to which I admit some partiality. It threatened in places (sadly, no sweary rants), but the comedy is rather more surreal or absurd, but no less enjoyable, deriving from the combined punctiliousness and gently derisory nature of the protagonist. His situation becomes more and more perilous and worrisome, and his one area of expertise, that of finding meaning in the obfuscated, fails singularly to support him in his quest until it is too late. In that respect, there is a little Dashiell Hammett to the character, and as Jonathan Coe mentions in a cover note, the plot veers into the semiotics and philosophy of language of Umberto Eco in a most diverting manner. Indeed, there is very little about this quirky and entertaining novel with which to find fault. So instead, I will rather sing its praises. It's a fun, diverting read, surprising and unusual, and, perhaps to top it all. features a cover with art from the redoubtable Moose Allain, cartoonist and Twitter ninja. As Jonathan Ames once wrote, what's not to love?
*Not that I'd make a thing of that, but as it stands he is married to a lovely lady with whom I went to University, who attended the music quiz nights I ran jointly with another couple of chums (one of whom made me aware of this fact), and who played bass in the Cardiff band The Loves.