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Dickens Gone Native : FICTION : ROSE, By Martin Cruz Smith (Random House: $25; 364 pp.)

May 19, 1996|Fred Schruers | Fred Schruers' last review for The Times was of "Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography."

Readers, critics and givers of prizes share some sort of consensus as to who our greatest novelists are, and their greatness is something apart from sales figures. But in the realm of popular novels, capital-A Art is a slippery thing to define. Does it accompany poundage, as Norman Mailer seems to believe? If you add erudition to weight, as in David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest," do you reach a higher plateau? Or do ironists like Julian Barnes and Martin Amis, with their bulletproof sangfroid and dryly laughing philosophical bent, stand a better chance of surviving the decades in good repute?

With this eighth novel, "Rose," Martin Cruz Smith strives to supply readers with both another beach book and something considerably more highbrow. It's territory that was worked, to instant and probably eternal popularity, by Charles Dickens, and this book is enough in the great man's debt that Smith lets one of his characters voice disdain for Dickens' "maudlin myths of London." (He doesn't quite obtrude on his territory, setting this novel in 1872, two years after Dickens' death.)

The locale is industrial Lancashire, in the busy yet thoroughly gloomy coal-mining town of Wigan. "Everything lay under a glittering veil of soot," Smith's narrator observes in his first minutes there. "The thought occurred to Blair that if Hell had a flourishing main street it would look like this."

In contrast to the omniscient voice that carried Dickensian observations, all our insights are to come through the intriguing prism of Blair, a rootless, tending-toward-sickly American with much experience around mines but even deeper and more recent experience as an African explorer, mapper and soldier of fortune. "You're the most anonymous man I've ever met," he is told by Charlotte Hannay (quite an enigmatic character herself). True enough--he knows little of his father, still less of the mother whose burial at sea haunts him; yet he's also celebrated as "Nigger" Blair, the white man who went native in West Africa and achieved a fame to rival Livingstone's in the shrinking, yet colony-obsessed British Empire. He's a man seemingly without friends, a pawn in a local mystery plot he can't seem to crack.

Crack it he must, however, because he's come to the town in the employ of Bishop Hannay, the comfortably corrupt cleric who owns the mine and thereby rules the town. Hannay knows Blair from an African adventure they shared and when Blair fetches up in London--discredited, broke and malarial from his latest adventure--he has no choice but to do a piece of detective work for the bishop, on the promise of passage back to Africa with a well-paying commission on arrival.

Blair's job, says Hannay, is "suited to your nature, your curiosity, your peculiar background." He must find one John Maypole, the young curate who is engaged to Charlotte Hannay but has mysteriously disappeared. Finding the truth about Maypole will prove to be an infernally difficult, torturous and bloody business.

If Smith's metier is the high-toned mystery, he's found ways to avoid formula protagonists. In "Gorky Park" (still his best and justly the most remembered) and its sequels, the hero was one Arkady Renko, a shambling Party-man homicide cop with darkly Dostoevskyan shadings and an acutely cynical perspective. Blair shares Renko's wryness. Amid the English ("such a smug little nation"), he alienates everybody from the leading miner bully, Bill Saxon, to the most austere blueblood, Lady Rowland. "He really is fully as awful as my son promised," says she. (Her son, the execrable Lord Rowland, is a period version of an NRA crackpot gone amok, who displays a trophy of severed gorilla hands to striking effect.)

Blair finds both consolation and consternation in the arms of Rose, she of the title and bearer of the plot's central mystery. Rose is a "pit girl," a trousered mine worker from a subclass of tough, libidinous women. She finds Blair to be "some creature from the papers. From the shipping news," but his own definition is typically sardonic: "Self-created out of my severely limited social exposure to Chinese, whores and miners."

Only the most meticulous reader will have much recourse to the three maps that begin the book, but they speak to the authentic feel Smith has created--we see the sooty landscape, feel the miner's dread and exertions a mile below and are constantly supplied with sensate hints that put us inside the scenes Blair encounters. One notable exception that at least feels like a glaring language anachronism comes when Blair closes a middle chapter with the sarcastic interjection, "Great," but otherwise dialects and manners ring true to life and well-researched.

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