Next of Kin, John Boyne, Thomas Dunne Books, $15.95.
Every good book has a secret somewhere in the story—in a mystery, the secret of course is usually the identity of the killer. In John Boyne's historical mystery, the secret is not the killer's identity, but the killer's very personality, his motives, and the extent of his moral depravity. This is a stand alone novel set in 1936 Britain, where one of the central issues of the day is the relationship between Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. Of course we know how that turns out, but Boyne offers a possible behind the scenes scenario that's very interesting.
The main portion of the book—the King and Mrs. Simpson are more of an atmospheric sidebar, though they relate to the plot—concerns one Owen Montignac, the scion of the wealthy Montignac family. When the book opens, Owen is giving the eulogy at his uncle's funeral, the appropriateness of which is hotly debated by the guests at the after funeral gathering. Such display of emotion is considered by some of the guests (mostly male) to be excessive; by some of the guests (mostly female) to be a welcome change. Owen himself seems oblivious.
By making Owen himself the central mystery of the novel, Boyne is entering Ruth Rendell territory. Her books often deal not with the "who" behind the crime but the "why", something she can usually make the reader wonder about until the very last page. Boyne hasn't reached the celestial heights that Ms. Rendell had achieved in her long and noteworthy career, but he gives her a run for her money. Owen, it quickly becomes clear, is the "poor relation" nephew who has been raised along with his cousin Stella by his uncle with the expectation that the wealth and land of the estate would come to him as the family has always left their estate to the male heir.
It also quickly becomes clear that Owen has a serious gambling debt, one he had hoped to repay on the death of his uncle. Like many of the other pieces of this story, each fits together, and as the story progresses things begin to line up. Involved as plot cogs are the unfortunate Gareth Bentley, a lazy man about town who resists working, as his father does, in the courts; the controversial verdict Gareth's father has recently handed down in a death penalty case; the art gallery Owen runs; and the relationship between Owen and his cousin, Stella. The outlying cogs are Edward and Wallis and their ultimate fate.
Boyne nicely sketches in the background of 1936 London, and though it's not as evocative as writing by someone like Kate Ross or Anne Perry, it gets the job done. What he is after is a good story, and he delivers. He's excellent at deconstructing Owen who begins as very mysterious and becomes less so as the story moves forward. In a Rendell novel I would never have figured out the ultimate "secret" though I did here, and it's one that fits with the way Boyne has set up the plot and characters. With each step Owen takes to reach his ultimate goal it becomes clear that what he's willing to do to accomplish it is pretty horrible. This is a fairly haunting and very well told story, well worth a look.
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