Friday, 17 October 2014

The Strange Death of a Romantic by Jim Williams

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett, author of The Land Beyond Goodbye, Don’t Look Down and Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion. (

What We Thought: The Strange Death of a Romantic is another of Williams’ playful tales of possible but disputed murder. You may never have wondered if the poet Shelley was deliberately drowned but if you read this book you will discover who dunnit anyway.

Guy Parrot, a young doctor, is befriended by a bunch of socialites in 1930. Most of these people are brittle and artificial and from the outset we know things are not going to go well for poor Guy. They set up temporary home in the Villa Esperanza near Le Spezia in Italy close to where Shelley had his boating accident – if accident it was.

To while away the time, the friends make up stories about Shelley’s possible murder. This is where William’s skill really comes into play. The stories are written in a variety of styles including pastiches of a Gothic romance, a Just William type story, a Noel Coward-like play and a bit of Gatsbyesque prose. The various peripheral characters evince qualities of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple with a touch of Madame Arcati thrown in – and there’s a bit of Mitford and Mosely for good measure. The novel is rich with literary and contemporary allusions. Recognising at least some of these allusions is probably necessary for full enjoyment of the book, but even without the background knowledge it will still be an entertaining read.

The novel starts in 1943 when Guy Parrot, now an army doctor, returns to the Villa Esperanza (and remember, ‘esperanza’ means ‘hope’) to set up a military hospital there. Along with dealing with wartime shenanigans involving insubordinate corporals, missing equipment and gay squaddies, Guy must also face his past and decide on his future. I have to admit finding the start slightly confusing but that doesn’t faze me – I’m not an advocate of the idea that all books must start with a bang. Stick with it and in no time at all you’ll be caught up in the fractured world of the well-meaning Dr Parrot.

This novel is funny, clever and literate; it also deals with hopeless love, disillusionment and mental illness. Another intriguing book from Jim Williams.

You'll enjoy this if you like: Scherzo, Recherche, and novels that play with writing styles.

Avoid if you dislike: Novels that make literary, political and social allusions.

Ideal accompaniments
: G&T for the 1930s bits, contraband coffee for the wartime episodes.

Genre: Literary, Crime, Historical.

Available from Amazon

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