Sunday, 26 April 2009

The Architect of Murder

I recently finished Rafe McGregor's first novel The Architect of Murder, and while the idea of reviewing something written by a friend and which I even had a small hand in editing is clearly ridiculous, I'm going to have a go anyway. I tried hard to read and enjoy it purely on its own merits, and as it turned out that was easy to do.

Because I'm lazy, here's the plot summary from the sleeve:

Major Alec Marshall VC, newly back in London, is enlisted to make inquiries into the will of the late Cecil John Rhodes, the wealthiest man in the British Empire. That same night one of the witnesses to the will, Eric Lowenstein, is found beaten to death in a seedy boarding house, where he was lodging under a false name. As London prepares for King Edward VII's coronation, Marshall discovers that Lowenstein harboured a deadly secret concerning not only the vast fortune Rhodes amassed, but the very future of the Empire. Marshall's investigation takes him into the dark heart of a flawed genius, and sets him on a personal journey that will change his life forever.

What's most striking about Architect, as first novels go, is its ambition. What starts as a straighforward-seeming murder mystery spirals off into a political thriller that takes in a huge cast of characters and grand and complex events, many of each culled from the history of the time. That complexity is there on just about every level. My absolute favourite thing about Architect is the way Rafe handles Marshall's post-war trauma; it's a sub-current so subtle it's easy to miss, and yet once you notice it, it colours every moment. Indeed, Marshall is a delightful character full-stop, all surface calm and damaged interior, a fish out of water grown sick of war but still more than capable of bloodshed.

Its complexity is both Architect's great triumph and - on occasions - it's one real weakness. There's a point around the half way mark where I suspect most readers will get a little lost amidst a barrage of character names, conspiracies and misdirection. For about a chapter it looks as if it all might spin out of control. Instead, Rafe shifts gears, and what was threatening to become a worthy tale of Victorian realpolitik turns into a cracking thriller, complete with a couple of tremendous action sequences. Perhaps the change of direction will befuddle some, but me, I loved it, and found it both natural and in keeping with its pent-up hero.

Although John Buchan is perhaps the obvious point of reference, Architect - with its genteel surface, abrupt and shocking violence, and conflicted gentleman hero - reminded me most of the work of Geoffrey Rogue Male Household. Coming from me, a huge Household fan, that's a heck of a compliment, but one that's well deserved. Architect exceeded all my expections, and I can't imagine anyone not taking something away from it.

The same can't be said for Rafe's recently podcast short story Blue Mail, here at CrimeWAV; it's a personal favourite - brutal, nasty and black as all hell - but I guess there are people who might not consider those things virtues. If you're over 18 and not afraid to hear about very bad people doing very bad things to each other then go give it a listen, you won't regret it.

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