Reviewed by Harriet
No, the title doesn’t refer to a predicted end of the internet. This is a 1976 novel, written before such things were even invented. It’s taken from a quotation about death, which is apt because death does crop up a bit in this excellent novel, a British Library Classic Thriller.
At the beginning of the novel we are introduced to Leo Selver. He’s a succesful antiques dealer, fifty years old, and the first thing we hear him say is ‘Women! Everything about them fascinates me!’. Leo has a wife, but a combination of the death of their only child and a serious operation has caused her to completely reject the physical side of marriage. So what, Leo asks himself, is he supposed to do? His life in recent years has consisted of a string of affairs with women a good deal younger than himself, and he’s just on the brink of starting another one with pretty, somewhat mysterious Judy Latimer. He’s confused – Judy seems sometimes to be encouraging him and sometimes fending him off. And even when he finally realises she is going to give him what he wants, he’s not so sure if he actually wants it. The thought of having to perform sexually, in a heatwave, when his desire seems to be ebbing worryingly, is far from appealing, and there’s a part of him that just wishes he could go home for a cup of tea and an early night. He puts all this down to aging, which doesn’t make him feel any better.
All this is brilliantly done, but then the focus of the novel shifts to another imperfect but attractive character, Ed Buchanan. Ed, in his mid-twenties, has failed to decide what he wants to do with his life. He’s been a policeman and a racing driver, but felt he wasn’t really cut out for either. When we meet him he’s just come back from four months on a Greek island, helping a young couple renovate a building they plan to make into a taverna, and has no idea what the future holds for him. He was good friends with Leo Selver’s late son, and when Leo’s wife calls on him for help, he feels he must cooperate.
Now things go into thriller mode with a vengeance, seeing Ed dashing around London (including a very dicey near-miss with a dodgy killer in Brixton), Paris, Amsterdam and finally Cornwall. Most of the time he’s got no idea who or what he is actually after, except that he soon realises it must have something to do with an antiques auction in a crumbling old Cornish mansion. Leo attended this, and he and two dealer friends formed a Ring, a well-known though technically illegal way of keeping the bidding low and acquiring the items you want in a private auction afterwards. Why this auction was important is initially a mystery, but finally some papers emerge which reveal exactly how dangerous and important this whole adventure actually is. By the end of the novel, he’s not only solved the mystery (or almost – there’s an intriguing loose end), but also discovered what he wants to do with his life and who he wants to spend it with.
George Sims (1923-1999) was an antiquarian bookseller, but he worked in Intelligence during WW2 and spent some time as a code-breaker at Bletchley Park. Certainly this experience gave an edge to his interest in writing his thrillers, which are particularly noteworthy for the surprising twists and turns of their plots. This one, for example, has a tremendous twist about a third of the way through, which I’d love to tell you about but obviously can’t. The book as a whole is extremely lively, and covers a satisfying and often surprising amount of ground. It’s stylish, intelligent, peppered with quotations from everything from poetry to popular song and with snatches of foreign languages for which no translation is generally given. All in all the thinking person’s thriller. So hooray for the Crime Thrillers series – another of Sims’ novels is coming out in a few weeks and I highly recommend both of them.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
George Sims, The End of the Web (British Library, 2017). 978-0712356824, 192pp., paperback.