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THE KING OF DIAMONDS
by Simon Tolkien
St Martin's Minotaur, March 2011
322 pages
$24.99
ISBN: 0312539088


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

It's 1960 and Inspector Trave of the Oxford CID is called to the scene of a murder. A young woman has been murdered in the home of her uncle, a wealthy diamond merchant. There's very little to investigate. All of the evidence points toward the girl's former lover, a man Trave had put away for the murder of a rival lover. The convicted member of the Angry Young Man generation had just escaped from prison, and apparently broken into the house, and killed the woman who testified against him. And yet ... the girl had told Trave's estranged wife a short while ago that "they're trying to kill me." And even though Trave's wife withholds that information, because she is separated from her policeman husband and is being wooed by the worldly man whose niece has been murdered, there are indications that make Trave believe the obvious explanation is a little too pat.

Simon Tolkien has written the sort of book that might translate well to the kind of period mystery that BBC Television produces so well. The period is not just evoked in costume and other details, it's the sort of story that would have been at home on a bookcase in 1960. The puzzle has clever twists, the characters dine well on fine china, the hero has a firm chin and a soft heart, the sidekick is a decent if unseasoned young copper, and the women are the sort who might dream they went to Manderley again.

Unfortunately, the characterization is handled with a very broad brush. For the plot to work, Trave has to behave very stupidly at times; his wife has to be bewitched by a man who is so oily he could slide right out of his bespoke suit; the bad guys must leer and twiddle their moustaches in case we mix up our scorecard.

More troubling for this reader, the plot involves Nazi plunder. Well, fine. The evil Nazi is a stock figure in thrillers, but it should be used with care if used at all. The author makes the mistake of capping what is obviously more an entertainment than a realistic exploration of good and evil by reaching for moral significance. In the final scene, he sends his hero to a site of Nazi atrocities, quotes the Kaddish, and adds a "let us not forget" sermonette in an afterword.

Using real-world crimes in fiction is always a tricky business. Balancing a reader's right to be entertained with a novelist's attempt to explore troubling subjects in fiction has to be weighed against the danger of trivializing and exploiting real people who experienced genuine evil. In this case, the conclusion seemed not only unsubtle but ethically tone-deaf, if not offensive. We should, indeed, never forget, but clichés deployed in the service of entertainment are a poor substitute for memory.

§ Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, February 2011

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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