Magazine article The Spectator

Leaving His Heart with the Dead

Magazine article The Spectator

Leaving His Heart with the Dead

Article excerpt

WHO'S WHO IN HELL by Robert Chalmers Atlantic Books, L12, pp. 272, ISBN 1903809991

Newspaper obituary notices used to be paper gravestones until Hugh Massingberd, former obituaries editor of the Daily Telegraph, sat up and saw the funny side. A life worth committing to record, he decided, should contain a bit of funny-- peculiar as well as a bit of funny-ha-ha: under his stewardship, obituaries began to appear containing both.

In true Massingberd style this may seem wholly irrelevant to the novel at hand, except that, as the title obliquely suggests, Robert Chalmers has chosen to pin his tale on a pair of obituarists. The less interesting of the two is the novel's protagonist. The more interesting one is called Alexander Whittington; he is more interesting because he is a cipher for Hugh Massingberd.

Both Massingberd and necrology are extraordinarily good subject-matter, Massingberd because he is an English eccentric of the sort Hollywood imagines shoot snipe in their underpants, and necrology because it comes with an air of the macabre. People who don't work for papers are still amazed that obituaries are written long before the person's death amazed and slightly disturbed, as preempting a tragedy feels like pre-booking a funeral. The idea of making a living from the dying - scouring the papers for hints of early-onset anything, scrutinising chatshows for the first splutters of pneumonia - seems both intriguing and mildly repulsive.

Evidently, all of this is perfect novel material and, as a former Telegraph obituary writer, Robert Chalmers's debut features some choice pickings from his experiences with the soon-to-be-dead. Not only is he gifted his best character Whittington/Massingberd - but he also feeds off Massingberd's obituary style for his own fluent prose style and many of his best gobbets.

The story revolves around Daniel Linnell, who falls into writing obits and ends up penning a Who's Who in Hell - a gallery of history's greatest shits written in the nudge-wink obituary code that, for example, describes a windbag as a `tireless raconteur'.

Excerpts from Daniel's work in progress are dotted throughout the narrative, such as this one on Aleister Crowley: `Surprisingly, for a man who perceived the world through a haze of opium, heroin and cactus-based hallucinogens, his favourite recreations included ice-skating and mountaineering. …

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