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I like to be surprised by a book. I appreciate quirkiness, characters that aren’t what they first seem, eccentricity. On all those counts UK author Paul Torday has delivered every time. His satirical first novel Salmon Fishing In The Yemen has been turned into a movie starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt to be released in March. It’s bound to win him new readers but I wonder what they’ll think of his subsequent novels as they have become increasingly darker and odder.
His latest The Legacy Of Hartlepool Hall (Orion, $39.99) begins conventionally enough. Ed Hartlepool is a dilettante who’s been living as a tax exile in the South of France but now must face up to his responsibilities. He’s inherited a stately home in the country along with its ageing staff and a mountain of debts. He arrives home to another problem. A strange old woman calling herself Lady Alice Birtley has taken up residence in Hartlepool Hall, claiming to be a friend of Ed’s late father.
Ed is part of a group of upper crust Brits who have been drifting in and out of Torday’s books for a while now. A nice enough chap, he’s just a bit useless. He’s not trained to do anything that might earn him cash and is altogether too passive and trusting. So when his old friend Annabel introduces him to her property developer boyfriend who proposes carving up Hartlepool Hall into luxury flats and putting in a golf course, Ed is ripe for the plucking.
Torday is fascinated with writing about broken lives but this time he’s turned his attention to a broken way of life – that of the landed gentry with their grouse shoots and house parties. Since he lives in a castle in Northumberland where he appears to be part of the hunting, shooting, fishing set this social change is something he’s been witnessing at first hand which would explain the feel of the story. It’s defeated, melancholic even, with rare moments where his trademark dark humour comes through.
There are some unexpected twists – particularly the fate of his troubled friend Annabel and her tyrant father. And then there’s the mystery of Lady Alice and the family secret she’s held for Ed’s entire lifetime. But some of the rest is predictable enough – of course the property developer boyfriend will turn out to be a shyster, naturally Ed will be ripped off. And it’s a stretch to feel much sympathy with a character who’s had it easy his entire life, is mildly astonished at the idea of answering his own front door and is prone to saying things like, “I’m sorry, Teddy, but sell the grouse moor? You can’t mean it?”
If you’ve never read any Torday then this riches-to-rags story isn’t where I’d suggest beginning – choose Salmon Fishing In The Yemen first as it’s the best in my opinion. If you’re a fan then I think you’ll find Torday’s writing as elegant as ever, his voice as original, his characters as striking and his take on the snobberies of the British class system diverting enough for this sixth novel to be worthwhile reading.