Any Human Face by Charles Lambert

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Any Human Face by Charles Lambert

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: An intriguing drama of love, abduction and murder in the dark recesses of 20th century Rome. A more straightforward structure might have rendered a more thrilling result.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: May 2010
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-0330512992

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1983: Alex enjoys the attention of his latest lover. Bruno is generous with his money and his time; he lends Alex the flash car, dines him extravagantly, treats him well, takes him seriously. It was not that he was not fond of the older man… or that he didn't appreciate the longer term view of a leg-up into journalism…, it's just that he doesn't realise he is lying to himself. What he feels for Bruno is a bit more than affection, as he is about to discover.

Bruno asks him to look after 'something' for a while: something potentially delicate that he would rather not keep at his own place, just for a while.

The 'something' turns out to be a series of photographs: mug-shots, crime-scenes, a girl in a taxi.

They turn out to be more than potentially delicate.

2008: Andrew Caruso, struggling second hand book dealer, is grieving the loss of Michel. Without a word or sign, except those always visible in retrospect, Michel killed himself. That is the official verdict anyway. Finally getting around to sorting out Michel's possessions, Andrew finds the photographs. Together with his art critic friend, he decides to mount a small exhibition in the room above his shop. This is something he does from time to time. His shows tend to be avant-garde (if that expression still has any meaning). They are never well-attended; never sell more than a few exhibits; never attract the attention of the press or the permit department of the arts ministry.

This one, however, is different. This exhibition definitely attracts attention. As events take an abrupt and violent turn, Andrew may live to wish he'd heeded the warnings of friends.

This is the dark side of Rome. This is a world where homosexuals carry on their lives below the radar of officialdom and polite society. This is a world of crime and corruption, where no-one can be trusted. This is a world where no-one really knows anyone else, but contrarily it is also a world of strangely unexpected kindness and trust. The gay community, although community is far too strong a word, is portrayed as place of pornography and freely-gratified lust – but it is still a place where people look out for each other, expecting nothing in return; it is still a place where people fall in love.

For that balanced view alone Lambert should be applauded. Many of his central characters are gay, and their sexuality is fundamental to the plot and the setting of the novel. The world they inhabit is subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) different to the one other people inhabit. At the same time, their lives are as ordinary or as extraordinary as anyone else's. They survive day-to-day doing what they do, until the unexpected collision occurs and everything changes.

The author places sex and sexuality at the heart of his novel, but he manages to do so without thrusting it down our throats. There is limited allusion, and little explicitness. When he speaks of bodily form or function, he does so as an artist, or a technician. He steers well clear of anything remotely unnecessary.

The story takes us back and forth between the past (1960s, 1980s) and the present (2008). It switches focus between protagonists; Alex, Bruno, Andrew, Michel, Daniela, the mysterious Birdman, Martin, Sandro – sometimes alone, sometimes in fleeting pairs. We peer into their relationships, into moments of their lives, as though looking at old pictures, hearing a snippet of a memoir. All of the past, the back-story, moves forward, connecting as we know it must with the photographs and the exhibition and what it will provoke, none of it shining any light on the why of it all.

Interspersed are a few snippets about the girl. Kidnapped from a busy street in broad daylight, she is held below ground. Not tortured, not harmed, but frightened, and alone. Her episodes are undated.

This current fashion for avoiding straightforwardly linear narrative is one that I, personally, am beginning to tire of. Few novelists pull it off with the necessary aplomb. I'm afraid that Lambert is not one of the few. It serves to confuse, rather than build the tension. I keep having to check who is who, and when we are. Taking the girl out of context works well and shows how to use the device to seriously good effect – the remainder of the tale would have benefited from a purely chronological rendition.

Setting this aside, however, what you have is an intrigue. Not quite tense enough to make it to thriller status, (that stop/start technique again), but a page-turning crime drama that holds the attention. Whether all of the issues are satisfactorily resolved by the penultimate pages might be a matter of opinion. I wasn't so sure.

The very last words, though, are by way of epilogue, or elegy, and suggest that if Lambert doesn't achieve his ambitions as a novelist, he should turn his pen to poetry.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For more crime drama in the Italian capital and the precincts of the Holy City check out Michael Dibdin.

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