It's not often you come across a novel that is truly different. When
you do it is to be savoured and treasured. Its differences are to be exulted in and its errors are to be forgiven. This is
such a novel.
The first indication of its difference is in its appearance. This is
a big book and I don't mean in page length, although that is a respectable 385 pages. No, I mean in dimensions. It measures
10" by 7" (no apologies for imperial measurement -- when Mae West starts making jokes about centimetres, so will I). It doesn't
look like a novel; it looks like a work of non-fiction, late Victorian non-fiction, for that is when it is set.
This is a novel about the three As: Architecture, Anarchists and Arms
Manufacture. Our hero, G. Morris Moneypenny is an architect doing fairly menial work for a local builder when he is lifted
out of obscurity by the "bat guano" fertiliser king George Aimlinson. Aimlinson wants Moneypenny to build him a substantial
house in Northumberland. Moneypenny travels to London where he meets Aimlinson, his beautiful wife, Helen, and Captain Norville
of Scotland Yard.
However, on his way to London, he also meets on the train one Mr Boyle,
who he subsequently sees pushed to his seemingly certain death off a railway bridge by an unseen assailant. What is going
Yes, what is going on, for paragraph three above takes a long time
to happen and is filled with subsidiary characters and lots and lots about architecture? We learn a great deal about Morris
and the novel almost strolls along. Then there is the seeming murder; there is nothing of the thriller about this, more of
the curious. What it does do is add to the atmosphere that Schweitzer is creating. This is a man who is in no hurry at all
to captivate us, but captivate us he does.
When Morris gets to Northumberland, what happens? Why, he builds the
house of course. We watch him do it and enter into the minutiae of design, engineering and building. I almost feel I could
have a go myself now. But, meanwhile, something else is going on, something involving nitrates, which, after all are what
fertiliser is about. Something involving the arms manufacturer who lives next door and something, via the non-Morris scenes
with Captain Norville and his black Sergeant Kirby, involving the plans of anarchists.
Eventually, the thriller element does lead the novel more, but Schweitzer
never lets it dominate and there are always deft little touches, like the cheese wheels at the bombing, that never allow it
to become clichéd.
I mentioned "errors" in my opening paragraph. This book is unfortunately
riddled with typos, which gather apace as the book goes on. Firstly it's a missing "the" or "a", but eventually almost wholesale
misspelling of characters' names occurs. There is one character, Aachenloos, who particularly suffers. You never know if he
is going to arrive equipped with his "n" or not. I got the distinct impression that the proofreader was not quite as captivated
with Mr Schweitzer's work as I was. That may very well be the case, as it may also be the case with whoever is reading this
review now. If you are looking for a pacy thriller, then look elsewhere. However, if you are looking for a late Victorian
considered adventure novel packed with interesting detail and atmosphere but almost completely non-manipulative, read this.
I hope you'll find it as rewarding as I have.