“Quite often narrow squeaks are what shape our days, aren’t they?”
I’ve been meaning to read author Bill James for a while now, so his latest novel, Noose arrived at the right time. In spite of the cover, this is not a crime novel, and instead while a noose is mentioned in the tale, for the most part, the noose is figurative. It’s a sense of moral obligation on the part of the protagonist, Ian Charteris, who when the novel opens, is a reporter.
It’s 1956. The novel opens with Ian receiving a call at home from the Mirror news desk to cover a story, the suicide attempt of a young up and coming actress named Daphne West who was found in a gas-filled room. The “customary PR gab” insists this was an accident, but there are some ugly rumours about Daphne’s involvement with “big-deal theatre producer” Milton Skeeth. According to the Mirror, Ian is the perfect man for the job:
That’s one of your flairs, isn’t it–getting folk to confide, blub on your shoulder, reveal all? You sport that kind of sympa face and chummy voice. You could become an agony aunt when age sets in and your career starts to run down. I want to hear the flagging of her gas-strangled heartbeat in your stuff, Ian.
But there are indications that Ian is already involved in this story in some way, and this could partly be explained by Ian’s suspicion that Daphne is his father’s illegitimate child and therefore his half sister.
Noose is a clever, very neatly organized novel, and the story’s trajectory begins to appear following Ian’s somewhat unethical presence at Daphne’s hospital bedside. From this point, the story’s arc extends back more than 20 years to Ian’s childhood with his “amphibious” dad–a very strange fellow. Noose explores the seminal incidents of Ian’s childhood which take him on a very specific path to adulthood, a murder which Ian witnesses, a hanging, and a woman saved from drowning. Seemingly disconnected events weave a safety net of privilege around Ian’s future, even as we see that Ian cannot escape his past, and it all begins with Ian’s father saving a young woman from drowning after she falls from a paddle ship. This story of heroism is a mainstay of Ian’s childhood, and it’s rolled out like an old familiar carpet every so often. Ian is trained to provide his father (who even snaps his fingers as though he can’t remember a crucial detail), with prompts, and of course Ian has the story memorized.
‘But back on that special day, you dived in from the port deck rail, determined to make a rescue.’
‘The woman’s coat and other wet clothes tugged her down.’
‘The sea there. Murky. Hard to spot anyone at depth.’
Ian’s father’s proudly owns a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings from the day he saved the young woman from drowning, and he’s jealously protective of his heroic action. Even though Ian’s just a child, he recognizes that his father has to be the centre of attention, and this makes for an awkward moment when Ian and his father attend a memorial service. Here’s Emily Bass, the reckless young woman saved by Ian’s father:
She said: ‘Often I speak to my husband and my friends of the undaunted captain who flung himself into the dark, dark sea in a valiant though doomed effort to save me, while also mentioning your father, Ian, naturally. It’s really fairly unusual to have a distinguished man die for you, isn’t it? Off came his cap with gold braid on it, I believe. Oh, such an occasion then, and such an occasion now.’
‘I got you out, you know,’ Mr Charteris remarked again. ‘Many a newspaper cutting I have at home describing this, haven’t I , Ian?’
‘Many,’ Ian said.
There were a couple of moments when I wondered why the novel began with an attempted suicide and then went back into Ian’s childhood, but the author keeps tight control over the story, all loose ends are neatly addressed, and we come to see that Emily plays a very significant role in Ian’s later life. Take L.P Hartley’s quote, “the past is a foreign country,” and that simply has no relevance to Ian’s adulthood. He may think he’s a man with Free Will but every step of his life is shaped by his past–specifically his father’s past–sometimes he’s aware of that and sometimes he just suspects it. A sense of moral obligation, of “debt,” is the noose that motivates Ian. According to Ian, it’s his “nicer side,” and he has to do a “bit of reciprocity.” While most of this sense of obligation stems from his father’s past, Ian also feels guilty for his role, as a child, in sending a man to the gallows, and later, he has cause to feel guilty about a fellow RAF officer.
Noose reminded me more than once of an Evelyn Waugh novel–perhaps the Sword of Honour had something to do with it, and that certainly brought Waugh’s name to mind, but no, it’s more the quirky characters–the Bells who own a chip shop, the woman at the hanging who knows all the relevant details and advocates the cat-o’-nine-tails first, and there’s one marvelous, extremely funny scene in which Ian, conscripted for his National Service engages in mock battle with a rival for the Sword of Honour, Bain. Ian senses that Bain is inherently the better candidate for the Sword of Honour, yet does the best man (whatever that means) win or does fate in the shape of his father’s past intervene yet again? Spanning a couple of decades of British history, this is a novel in which Ian seems to be one of the few normal people, and he’s surrounded by eccentrics in an off-kilter world. Noose argues that we pay for the sins of our parents, for it’s in Ian’s adulthood, that he finally understands some of the more mysterious incidents in his childhood.
Here’s Ian’s father angry when newspaper reporters show up to talk to his son:
“I knew it, I knew it,’ Mr Charteris said. He punched the hall dado rail with his fist three times quickly. Ian’s mother hated fist work against walls or furniture. She considered it showing too much excitement, like foreigners, especially in hot countries where people got so steamed they forgot control. She went to the spot on the dado rail and brushed it with her hand, as though to give it comfort or make sure her husband hadn’t contaminated it by getting his skin broken in the blow and leaving blood.
“First down the police station in the middle of the night , and now this,” Mr Charteris said. “They want to know everything and spread it. Don’t tell me they won’t spread it. Why are they called “reporters” if they’re not going to spread it? They’re going to spread it to people who buy the Echo.”
“Spread what, dad?” Ian asked.
“Oh, yes, spread it,” his father replied.
I really didn’t expect this novel to be gently humorous and I was pleasantly surprised. There’ll be more James in my future.