FICTION: A Talented Man
Hatchette Books, €13.49
The first thing that strikes me before I even start to read this accomplished literary thriller by Henrietta McKervey is the echo, even in the title, of Patricia Highsmith's gripping yarn The Talented Mr Ripley. Secondly, I'm struck by the recent resurgence of interest in Bram Stoker, with Joseph O'Connor's brilliant reimagining of the life of Stoker in Shadowplay and Kiran Millwood Hargraves' YA feminist retelling of The Brides of Dracula in The Deathless Girls. It's a brave enterprise for McKervey to venture into such well-trodden territory, but A Talented Man, McKervey's fourth novel, does not disappoint.
This atmospheric tale about a sociopathic forger who claims to have found a long-lost sequel to Bram Stoker's Dracula opens in pre-Second World War London, but the stylish writing and the evocation of the city definitely lend a more Edwardian feel to the novel. Like its Highsmithian fore-runner, A Talented Man opens with the shifty protagonist, Ellis Spender, being pursued by an unknown predator.
The reader is immediately pulled into the wary and suspicious mind of Ellis, worried that his dodgy deals and fraudulent claims have caught up with him. But cash-strapped Ellis, only son of a once-grandiose society family, is a cunning opportunist and turns the situation around, when he discovers the chance to exert a little blackmail on his pursuer. Ellis, an aspiring writer, thinks "about money and his lack of it all the time" and believes that he is entitled to all the trappings of wealth and privilege without any compunction to earn it.
Until, that is, he rediscovers a latent talent for forging handwriting. After finding Gilbert and Sullivan librettos among his uncle's papers and forging Gilbert's signature on them, he manages to con an antiquarian into buying the manuscripts. Emboldened by his success, and firmly believing that a lavish lifestyle is his due, he cooks up a more audacious plan, to pen a sequel to Bram Stoker's Dracula. Ellis's mother Virginia had been a good friend of Stoker's wife Florence, the pair sharing a childhood spent in Dublin, and while trawling through his uncle's effects, Ellis finds a reference to a destroyed Dracula sequel called 'The Un-dead Count'. Practising forging Stoker's handwriting, he becomes obsessed with the idea of writing the sequel for himself, thus liberating him from stultifying penury and baying creditors.
His cunning plan progresses well, and all seems to be working in his favour until someone tries to double-cross him. Steps must be taken to neutralise this threat and Ellis spirals into a cycle of murder and self-justification.
McKervey's skill lies in having the reader root for this morally vacuous character, despite his evil deeds and narcissistic equivocation. She makes him so compelling that we identify with every twisted compulsion and petty indignation swirling inside his head. We watch in horror as he covers his tracks and implicates innocent people, and still I found myself hoping he might get away with it. I was curiously drawn to his cold logic and, as the pace of the plot picked up, I read with bated breath each new twist and turn of the story.
The novel is descriptive and atmospheric: the streets of London, the famed Lyceum theatre, and the overhanging threat of impending war all conjured up by McKervey in lyrical, fluid prose. Even murder is eloquently portrayed, the pool of blood from a bashed head glistening "in the light, a murky halo against the paleness" of the victim's hair.
A stylish tour de force.
Sunday Indo Living