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A Talented Man: An elegant yet throat-clenching tale of forgery and other fell deeds

Fiction: A Talented Man

Henrietta McKervey

Hachette Ireland, 298 pages, trade paperback, €17.99; Kindle £4.99

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Fourth novel: Henrietta McKervey. Photo: James Gould

Fourth novel: Henrietta McKervey. Photo: James Gould

A Talented Man by Henrietta McKervey

A Talented Man by Henrietta McKervey

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Fourth novel: Henrietta McKervey. Photo: James Gould

A Talented Man, fourth novel from Belfast author Henrietta McKervey, is situated precisely, and very pleasingly, at that nexus point between literary and genre fiction.

Set in 1938, it's a crime story - murder, forgery, sexual assault and other fell deeds - and works well as such. But the book is also a provocative meditation on some profound themes. I really enjoyed it.

Our central character is Ellis Spender, scion of a minor aristocratic family - dad was Lord Sidney, a once-famous painter - and something of a gadabout. Aged around 30, Ellis lives with mother Virginia: dreaming of the literary success he feels is his by right, dreading that he's deluding himself… drifting through a kind of life-in-stasis, neither talented enough to realise his ambitions nor strong enough to walk away from them.

Irish-born Virginia was once a great beauty and close friend of the likes of Bram Stoker and wife Florence Balcombe… and still a fierce snob. She's now reduced to pottering around their shambling London pile and, horror of horrors, taking in lodgers. Those are Janey, a brassy and beautiful girl working at the iconic Lyceum Theatre, and Patrick, a medical student from Dublin.

Meanwhile, she, the conceited materfamilias, sorely misses her brother Freddie, an actor now in Hollywood.

To Virginia, Freddie is a wonderful gentleman; to almost everyone else, especially Ellis, he's a creep, verging at times on monstrous. He's also a debt-welcher and owes the Spender household several hundred pounds.

Desperate for money and angry at Freddie, Ellis roots through some old junk the uncle has left behind, finding letters from the Stokers and other theatrical memorabilia. A gifted forger, Freddie fakes up handwriting on a sheaf of Gilbert & Sullivan lyrics and sells them to an Oxford bookseller.

Emboldened by this, and spurred on by his desire for both Janey and the literary life he feels fate has denied him, Ellis embarks on something much more ambitious - a long-lost sequel to Dracula. He succeeds, too: feeling almost possessed by the spirit of Stoker, Ellis "channels" a new Dracula story and comes to regard this forgery as less an act of theft than a work of homage to Bram, even a strange across-the-decades collaboration with him.

McKervey is wonderfully perceptive on the processes, obsessions and frustrations of the creative process - it's rare to come across a writer writing about writing without being hideously boring - and it's easy to get swept along by Ellis's sense of excitement and anticipation, so much that you want him to get away with this con-job.

Alas, the gods laugh when men make (or fake) plans: Ellis is betrayed and resorts to murder. Meanwhile, dastardly Freddie has returned, having discovered the Gilbert & Sullivan forgery, with the paw out for money.

It's a properly throat-clenching "will he get caught?" thriller storyline, given added style and depth by, respectively, elegant writing and some thought-provoking explorations of identity, art, morality, the mind and the self.

Patricia Highsmith is referenced by the cover bumpf, and that feels pretty accurate: A Talented Man could be an early inclusion in her Ripley series. (Maybe a hitherto unknown but recently discovered novel, he joked.)

Ellis himself isn't too far removed from Tom Ripley: more amoral and psychologically damaged and plain old weird than outright bad, as such.

People like this commit terrible deeds not from pure malice, but because they're missing some essential part of the mind that lets them know it's wrong.

Anyway, another reference for me would be the wonderful Daphne du Maurier (pound-for-pound, in my opinion, the most underrated writer of all time). I can't think of a more flattering comparison than that.

At one point, Ellis, musing on the nature of epistolary literature, reckons that "a story witnessed and told by so many characters becomes estranged from itself, yet curiously more believable than a tale told by one". Well in this case, A Talented Man is Henrietta McKervey's work alone, and very fine it is, too.

Indo Review