We’re reading THE MONSTER’S LAMENT by Robert Edric

16 May

What’s the difference between a magician and a crook? Liz Sourbut looks for answers in a novel of London’s underworld

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The Monster’s Lament
Robert Edric
Doubleday, HB £17.99

In a London staggering towards the end of World War Two, a group of interconnected characters pursue a series of unrealistic dreams. Robert Edric’s novels often focus on the underbelly of life – gangsters, prostitutes, low-lifes of various kinds – and The Monster’s Lament is no exception. In this, the third of his ‘occult’ novels, the central character is an ageing and increasingly desperate Aleister Crowley, magician and self-proclaimed Antichrist, now ill and living in squalor, but still working towards one last shot at immortality. His magick requires knowing the exact time of a man’s death, and in condemned murderer Peter Tait, awaiting hanging in Pentonville Prison, he believes he has found exactly what he needs.

Edric has brought the streets of wartime London expertly to life. The milieu is entirely convincing and the characters are solid, vulnerable flesh and blood as they trudge around the rubble-heaps, scanning the skies for rockets and trying to figure out how to stay one step ahead, or at least not to fall too far behind in their struggle with the forces shaping their lives.

Crowley has used his influence over gangland boss Tommy Fowler to send Tait a small bible, imprinted with invisible incantations, as part of his immortality ritual. The boy himself, only 19 years old, isn’t sure if he fired the fatal bullet or not because he was knocked unconscious during the crime, but he thinks he’s innocent. He seems the least tortured person in the whole book as he sits in his cell, reading this bible, and waiting calmly for death.

As Tait sits and reads, infuriating his sympathetic gaoler with his passivity, everyone else in the book twists and turns: minor hoodlums try to free themselves from Tommy Fowler; Detective Pye tries to link Tait and the shooting with Fowler; Crowley himself clings to life as he awaits the apparently inevitable moment of Tait’s hanging. And everybody hopes they can dodge the last few bombs still falling on London as the war draws to its close. The thought of dying now, so close to the end, haunts everyone. Perhaps, amidst all this chaos, it’s reassuring for Tait to know the exact manner and moment of his death. It’s this certainty that Crowley needs for his ritual. He has pointed out how rare it is for anyone to have such knowledge; and in the course of the novel, death comes very unexpectedly to some.

Is Crowley the monster of the title? Many of the other characters could vie with him: Tommy Fowler the gangster, ruling the lives of his employees through fear and killing those who cross him; Frankie Doll, his messenger boy, who cares for no-one but himself; not to mention Hitler, hiding in a bunker somewhere in Germany and still sending over the bombers to kill civilians at random.

The occult is certainly a theme, though not perhaps the dominant one. The mystic Veronica makes her living pretending to channel messages from dead loved ones for the multitude of bereaved Londoners, while Crowley can only bore those around him with endless tales of the ritualistic debaucheries he used to enjoy in his prime. Now there’s not much he can do, although he tries his best with working girl Ruby Nolan, who wants the notoriety of having been associated with him.

It is much more a book about death. In a world where millions of innocents have been slaughtered, Peter Tait has been caught, tried, found guilty and sentenced to hang for the murder of one man. It seems to be less important that the right man has been sentenced than that justice is seen to be done. Sometimes, amidst the rubble-strewn streets of this dark and dingy London, it seems as though the devil has consumed us all. Not a book to read before bedtime.

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