You want a good book to curl up with, just as winter shakes off its last drops? Look no further than Paul Theroux’s The Family Arsenal, a brooding thriller which crosses and double crosses London in such a manner that you’re left marvelling at the author’s skill.
Set in the dour days of 1970’s London, The Family Arsenal is that rare bird: a thriller which never gets too dense with plots and sub-plots and maintains a modicum of comedy, enough to save the reader from the instinctive reaction to a book which just gets too clever for its own good – the final and dismissive put-down.
Lead character and the anti-hero cement that holds a web of intrigue together, Valentine Hood is a fugitive American ex-consul trying to put as much distance as he can between himself and the murky business which saw him exit Vietnam after punching a pompous South Vietnamese government official. Aided by his large stash of smuggled opium, Hood’s cool rarely breaks, affording him an endearing Zen-like calm which soothes his hatred as he presides over the murderous intentions and gentle affections of the chaotic ersatz “family” he has adopted, all of whom are deeply involved in the disruptive and dangerous activities of the IRA’s provisional wing, the Provos. Murf is the socially inept and floppy-eared bomb maker who regards Hood as somewhat of a father figure, and Brodie is his coltish girlfriend, flippant about the reality of her situation and determinedly maintaining an innocence that belies her street urchin street smarts. Mother of this dysfunctional family unit is Mayo, the secretive and hard-line IRA operative with whom Hood has an on-off sexual relationship that offsets the hard-headed exchange the two normally engage in.
Added to this list of characters is Mister Gawber, an apocalyptically minded and myopically bumbling accountant, Lady Arrow, the aristocratic lesbian who covets the pert and skittish Brodie, actress Araba Nightwing (who is not all she seems, and is involved in radical underground politics) and the broken bird of this gripping story, the widow of a man whom Hood was compelled to kill by the most basic of instincts.
With an ability to communicate the very smells and sounds of south and east London’s grimiest suburbs, alleyways and dog tracks, Theroux’s keen sense of perception is felt throughout this, one of his greatest stories. The Family Arsenal is considered a rework of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, and this may well be the case, but in his characters’ mannerisms, in the vernacular of inner city London, and in his depictions of landscape and atmosphere, Theroux shows a masterful hand all his own, making for an altogether enjoyable and engaging read.
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