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The Godwin Sideboard by John Malcolm (Scribner's: $13.95; 166 pp.)

November 17, 1985|Gerald Jay Goldberg | Goldberg's most recent novel is "Heart Payments" (Viking). and

Think antiques, and conjure up blue-chip Chippendales, Hepplewhites, Sheratons or Phyfes in brilliant museum settings. Glowing images of elegance and taste. Think again, and you have the subfusc nasty world of thugs and killers skulking about in John Malcolm's new English mystery novel. Here, once more, we have the dark underside of interior decoration.

Malcolm's hero, Tim Simpson (first glimpsed in "A Back Room in Somers Town"), is an expert in art and antiques. Though an amateur in sleuthing--like Marple and Wimsey and those other meddlers of English fiction--this ruggedly attractive cove can take a beating better than most. But it is in dishing it out that he excels. A former star rugby player, he sends the villains packing with "hooks" and "hands offs" and employs his high punt kick where it will do the most good. Employed by a major London brokerage firm, Simpson is director of its Art Investment Fund. His boss, Jeremy White, suggests that they invest in furniture and, almost casually, Simpson comes up with the "fateful idea" of a Godwin sideboard. W. E. Godwin, he explains, was an architect and designer, and his 1867 "black buffet" was an early milestone on the road to Modernism.

The two investors zip over to the Victoria and Albert to see one of the small number of sideboards built from Godwin's design and both agree that this striking, Japanese-influenced piece makes a nearby Morris cabinet seem "appallingly middle-class." To Simpson, the Godwin looks "positively racy, rakish and low-slung, with its flaps out to give length to its proportion." It's not every day that one encounters an ex-rugger with this sort of feeling for furniture.

Given the go-ahead by White, Simpson approaches his friend, the antiques dealer Peter Blackwell, to help him acquire a Godwin. Peter agrees and is promptly bumped off. The search for his killer takes the amateur investigator to Hastings on the Channel--"the arse end of England"--and a sleazy world of stolen goods and imitation antiques. A chance meeting with the attractive San Francisco antiques dealer, Marianne Gray, provides the romantic sparks of the book. It provides some of the humor as well when Simpson, in bed, receives a crucial phone call from Australia while Marianne tickles his fancy beneath the sheets.

In addition to its humor (largely double-entendre) and hero, another attraction of this short, readable novel is the intriguing figure of Godwin himself and the tantalizing bits and pieces we are given about his relationship with the celebrated actress Ellen Terry--wife of the pre-Raphaelite painter G. F. Watts and mother of two of Godwin's children. Tim Simpson wants to know more about the man, and so did I. Peter Blackwell's secretary, Myra, mentions a biography by Dudley Harbron called "The Unconscious Stone," but tells him "it's been out of print for years." Had Simpson checked his local library, he might have found a copy under the title "The Conscious Stone." A simple error, of course, but Simpson's tendency to be too trusting will nearly destroy him.

I, for one, would hate to see him go. In a novel where some of the characters are cliches and all of the Americans utter some dreadful make-believe language, the surprising Simpson peppers his story with wonderful English slang. How nice to read about "rozzers," "poofters," "dodgy goods" and "plonk."

If there are potholes in the narrative (and there are), one nimbly leaps over them, eager to jog along with the sympathetic Simpson. A man who can tell us that a corpse is slumped over in a Waterhouse chair is worth our attention. It's too bad he doesn't have more interesting friends.

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