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Book Review : On the Trail of a Man Who Mailed Himself to Heaven

November 13, 1985|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Mr. Wakefield's Crusade by Bernice Rubens (Delacorte: $15.95)

When Luke Wakefield, a wealthy young man with only the shakiest grip on his own reality, goes to the post office one Tuesday, he finds himself in line behind another man, elegant and dressed in a camel-hair coat.

The man buys a stamp, attaches it to an envelope and falls down dead. "It was as if he had gone to the post office for the express purpose of mailing himself to heaven," Luke reflects, slipping the dead man's envelope in his pocket before anyone can see him, then taking it home to read comfortably in the company of a large glass of excellent Scotch poured from a Waterford decanter.

Now this is an altogether winning way of beginning the novel of mannered mystery that "Mr. Wakefield's Crusade" seems to be. Bernice Rubens, an English novelist, promises us an artifact of considerable elegance, a silken net that will, by the end, deliver a sleek and flapping catch.

The novel is indeed elegant, clever and tautly voiced. What it delivers, though, is a pale, croaking creature--a sea robin, perhaps--surrounded by a mess of red herrings.

Herrings, in fact, are what Rubens is after. Mystery novels, and I mean something broader than detective stories or thrillers, revolve around two relatively fixed points. The protagonist or unraveler, however eccentric or blotched, is essentially a reasoned viewpoint on a quest. The mystery, however bizarre and tangled, contains ultimately a string-end which, when pulled, resolves things.

For a while, this seems to be what we're to get. True, Wakefield is undeniably odd. Speaking in a highly affected voice, like the teller of an Edwardian tale, he lets us know that he is a man "whom life has passed indifferently by." His wife has left him for another woman, he lives in moral isolation and if he is rich, it is only through a chance inheritance.

His quest starts off in an amusingly far-fetched but apparently logical fashion. The letter by the dead man, Sebastian Firbank, is addressed to Marion Firbank, seemingly his wife. It is an apology for some monstrous crime that Sebastian has committed against her.

Wakefield begins to snoop incompetently around Sebastian's house. A cleaning woman informs him that the wife, Marion, disappeared months before. And Wakefield, convinced that fate has commissioned him to solve a crime, sets out on his "crusade" to find her.

For a while, Wakefield's bungling and misapprehensions seem like comical embroidery on some kind of recognizable mystery. Yet we are puzzled by loose, apparently gratuitous connections. Characters are brought in only to fade away; pointless trips are taken.

It would not be right to reveal precisely what is happening. Sufficient to say that Wakefield is gradually revealed to be both partly deranged and partly homosexual; and that the mystery that he sees out of his partial delusion is itself a hoax born of other people's delusions.

As he struggles with reality, Wakefield invents the one-way phone call, dialing a number that produces a ring and then conducting a non-existent conversation with it. One of these has him making a date for lunch, going out to keep it, being stood up and returning to invent a second phone call--in which his imaginary date apologizes for her failure to show up.

Aside from such wacky passages, the situation Rubens ingeniously invents proves beyond her strength to control. It would take a very formidable talent--would it even be possible?--to propel us through a mystery built upon a double delusion, while simultaneously hinting to us and concealing from us the fact that it was one.

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