6 SEPTEMBER 1975, Page 20



Peter Ackroyd

The Needle Francis King (Hutchinson £3.45) The Gamekeeper Barry Hines (Michael Joseph £3.50)

There has always been a dark side to Mr King's novels, somewhat contradicting the conventional view of him as one of our more placid writers; although he is no Poe, and would not want to be, he is adept at casting various forms of terror and unease within his apparently calm, collected prose. This new shocker, The Needle, takes the macabre to heights of gruesomness which even Lady Cynthia Asquith might envy. It is the sad story of a G.P., Lorna, who lives too closely and too easily with Bob, her brother, a film extra, a man of mystery, a man who washes his hands in a peculiar way: "Eash hand in turn went limp, the fingers dangling loosely. He made no effort actually to wash them; he did not take up the soap." It might be something to do with guilt, Bob supposes, and then again it might not. Matty, the crippled doctor who is Lorna's partner, certainly thinks so — ah, but there hangs another story.

But this is no mere pot-boiler, since Mr King never dabbles in over-statement. He is also too fastidious to bother with the thoroughly modern under-statement; he is, rather, a master of the precise statement — going very well with his constant effort to keep up appearances: the appearance of his characters, of his prose, and of the neatly but tightly formed shape of his,

narrative. But beneath this surface, some dark fantasies swoop and glitter. The novel is invaded by images of decay. Sexual violence — aptly suggested by the title of the book — and physical decrepitude, which seems to be running riot among Lorna's patients, are somehow connected in Mr King's mind, and his darting imagination is only barely kept in check by the iron discipline he imposes upon his own writing. But order and control, however self-willed, have their disadvantages.

I wish that Mr King would take a leap into the dark — the real dark: not the dark of fantasy and imagination, but the dark of language — and although he would run the risk of massive failure (something which has never happened to him), he might also in the process add to his considerable powers of observation and description. The plot of The Needle, for example, is carefully and cleverly developed but it is just a little too neat: the narrative gets into its stride, with Lorna injecting her brother with insulin, the mystery of Bob's secret life deepens with a number of suggestive scenes and situations (the discovery of sweet papers in Bob's car turns out to be a particularly neat albeit bizarre touch), and eventually the sister falls with her brother, and the novel ends with her being injected in turn by Matty. It is all very intriguing, very well told, very plausible, and I admire the way in which he manipulates his narrative; but, it may be that Mr King is putting his points too well, and manipulating too cleverly. The darkness within should become visible on the surface, too.

Mr Hines is a novelist who has decided not to be formal or artful at all. Last week, I was considering the innocent novel of Tom Hart, but artlessness can take many forms, The Gamekeeper pays that same, close attention to local detail and natural rhythms, but the particular social density of the book is not innocent and it is not undesigned. In the same breath as journalists try to rise above themselves by expounding what used to be known as the 'New Journalism', so Mr Hines — and a few others with the same motive — attempt to keep the fictional elements in their novels to a minimum. The Gamekeeper is, in this context, as close to a documentary record of a gamekeeper's life as anyone is ever likely to need. George Purse works on a ducal estate: he feeds his pheasants, he takes them to their laying pen, he has his window frame fixed, he goes rabbiting with a ferret called Sam, he incubates the pheasant eggs, he kills some birds of prey, he goes for a drink, he lets the young pheasants loose, he catches a poacher, he becomes a loader for a Gun at a grouse shoot, he does similar things on a pheasant shoot. Meanwhile, this year's birds are growing for the kill. End of story.

To tell it, Mr Hines uses a transparent style, with a willed atttention to simple objects and natural things, and a refusal to inveigle the reader with those ornaments of style like conceit, metaphor, image and metonymy which make our hearts thump with emotion. unfortunately, this means that Such other devices as character, dialogue and plot remain at a solid and rudimentary level. This puritanical obsession with prose as a purely reportorial and mimetic force is a somewhat unique one, but at this late date it has a certain power and a certain significance. The natural cycle becomes part of the plot of the book, and the details of daily life take on an unusual significance. The Gamekeeper is, in this sense, a political novel; the concentration upon daily, simple and natural things turns it into a polemic against all which is not natural, and not simple. Industry,

for example, and the judicial system take some hard knocks in passing but, principally, it is the aristocratic life — the justification of the gamekeeper's role and the context of the book — which is damned with no praise. The simplicity and the directness of the prose, the description of the wholesale laughter of animal life at the shoot, make a more powerful statement than any ordinary polemic. But it is at the same time an ambiguous book, because there is an implicit acceptance of cruelty and inequality on a natural scale (for example, George Purse's killing of small birds of prey), and I would have thought that the hunt and the aristocratic order are just as natural as the graduations and depredations of 'wild life'. But a book written so artlessly cannot, in the nature of itself, make such distinctions and a direct, simple book must leave larger matters ambiguous and unresolved.