Magazine article The Spectator

All Good Pals and Jolly Bad Company

Magazine article The Spectator

All Good Pals and Jolly Bad Company

Article excerpt

When three old friends - well, two friends and one intimate enemy - meet at a former lover's funeral and offer their glum condolences to the deceased's uninteresting husband, George, they set in train a revenge tragedy which is ludic, heartless, and oddly lightweight. The friends are Clive Linley, a composer who is working on a symphony for the Millennium, Vernon Halliday, editor of a newspaper entitled The Judge, and Julian Garmony, a politician expected to challenge the Prime Minister for the leadership. All are shaken by Molly's last illness, which began, sinisterly, with a tingling in the left arm before developing rapidly into full-blown helplessness.

In the days following the funeral both Clive and Vernon experience distressing, but possibly illusory, symptoms: a numbness in the arm in one case, on the right side of the head in the other. Braced by his all-purpose composure, Garmony seems most likely to ride out the storm. All are united by their indifference towards the widower, with his 'pleading' eyes. He happens to have an interest in Halliday's newspaper, but this does not seem important enough to win him any sort of respect. The friends disperse thankfully, each to his own concerns. Clive and Vernon trust each other well enough to beg a service of the other: rather than descend into Molly's condition they will see to it that a better end is ensured when the ultimate moment is perceived. Garmony has no such qualms. He is, he thinks, invulnerable.

The end, or what is to be the end in this oddly twilit narrative, can probably be intuited here, and is indeed indicated by the title. In Holland respectable doctors can be persuaded to administer the fatal dose. In Amsterdam Clive's symphony is due for rehearsal. So far, so equable. Then matters deteriorate with increasing momentum. The action is punctuated by intemperate phone calls, and the one moment of tension in the book comes as Clive, within reach of his final variation and coda, is interrupted by calls from Vernon who is on to a story. Did Clive, on a walking tour in the Lake District, hear the voice of a woman in distress and fail to come to her assistance? Is this suspicious? (It may be.) But of greater significance are the repeated telephone calls. For the elusive theme continues to be just within reach, and there are only a few days to the rehearsal. …

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