Kevin Broom is a Nazi memorabilia collector and an awkward sufferer of trimethylaminuria, an illness that causes him to smell strongly of fish all of the time. Seth “Sinner” Roach is a pre-WWII Jewish boxer, short, nine-toed, alcoholic, and the best fighter in England. Philip Erskine is a collector of beetles, a devout follower of eugenics, and a bumbling and incompetent fascist who is mostly deplorable, except that you feel some mild pity for him for being a bit pathetic —and he wants to conduct tests on the one-of-a-kind Sinner.
As Kevin deals with an alarming beetle-related kidnapping in the present, he pieces together how Sinner and Erskine, seventy years before, have brought him to the point where a graceless shut-in like himself has to deal with a gun-wielding member of a long-dead Nazi society. The narrative runs smoothly from Kevin’s present-day machinations to the remarkably gritty past of Erskine and Sinner, and it surprised me completely as I generally avoid historical novels (it’s not something I’m proud of, but I am much more likely to read something set right this very moment than something pre-1990s, even though I grew up before that) yet I was much more excited reading their story than Kevin’s. Which isn’t to say that Kevin’s thread wasn’t interesting—of course it was, this whole book is great—but perhaps I learned a Valuable Lesson About Reading; i.e. that I should stop being fussy about stories set before the glory times of New Kids On The Block.
Ned Beauman manages to deal with the serious—anti-Semitism, eugenics, fascists—yet produce a smart book that manages to completely engage by virtue of its characters. From Sinner, small yet alarmingly intimidating even in paper form, and poor inept Philip Erskine, to foul-mouthed pre-teen fibber Millicent Bruiseland and sarcastic social darling Evelyn Erskine, everyone is wonderfully drawn and fantastically entertaining. Even London itself, and the buildings we visit, are as alive as the people, with Erskine’s family home Claramore a frightening place full of oversized appliances that may electrocute anyone unlucky enough to be existing nearby.
Boxer, Beetle is a brilliant, fun-in-a-dirty-way read by someone who has the nerve to be youthful and beardy and intelligent. It’s written in such an immediate, realistic style—despite the level of farce, Beauman doesn’t hold back on the stark violence of the era—that sometimes I had to remind myself in the 30s-set scenes that it was just a well-researched novel and not a well-told historical document. With jokes.
Boxer, Beetle will be published in September.