BOOK REVIEW: The House Of Rumour

The House Of Rumour by Jake Arnott, pub. Sceptre (ISBN 9780340922729)

If Dirk Gently stopped mucking about with gods and aliens, he’d have a field day with this one.  What connects Ian Fleming, Aleister Crowley, the Jonestown massacre, Rocket Science, Rudolph Hess, Ovid, the New Romantics, L Ron Hubbard and the Cuban revolution?  SF writer Larry Zagorski just might have the answer.  He’s put together the pieces of this unique puzzle in his latest story which bears a startling resemblance to Jake Arnott’s mind-blower of a novel sitting by my side here.  Despite having finished this book about a month ago, my brain is still fizzing, so you’ll have to pardon me if this review seems a bit off-kilter.

Let’s get the cards on the table first.  This isn’t my usual kind of read.  It’s probably not yours either, but it’ll have you hooked pretty damned quick.  It’s a borderland book, hovering between the genres and their readership.  That can be dangerous for any writer, but Jake Arnott has already proven his value with a string of successes.  His latest work has SF elements, toying with iconic writers in one of the plot strands and a UFO cult in another.  Present day references like ‘Multiversal Studios’ indicate that it could be set in a parallel universe (though in reality it’s probably just a rights issue.)  There’s spy stuff, sadomasochism and poignant love.  The historical research and “what-if” scenarios give it a secret-history vibe, with drug culture and pseudo-magical elements adding to the appeal for readers who like to peek behind the curtains of accepted Truth.  The style is Literary, but it has a wild ragged edge which thrills as it slashes through your expectations.

The central mystery is why, in 1941, Rudolph Hess climbed into an aeroplane and flew himself to Scotland, only to be immediately captured and imprisoned.  The House of Rumour is a private name for the secret service – which may (or may not) have manipulated events to pull off this WWII coup – but it is also a metaphor for the book itself, which in many ways feels like a collection of whispered tales: full of import and vital meaning, yet half heard and easily confused.  A host of characters orbit the mystery, either as participants, observers or victims.  None are wholly reliable, but all come across vividly.  They are flawed, credulous, manipulative and often tragic beings, but they share a verisimilitude which I found refreshing.

The conceit is that Larry Zagorski has come into possession of a Spymaster’s personal memoir of the case and (blending this with research, autobiographical detail and imaginative leaps) he has pulled together a complete narrative of events to explain the mystery.  The structure of Arnott’s novel is audacious, laid out in sections to mirror a tarot deck.  Each ‘card’ adds to our interpretation of the story, shedding new light on what we already know via new character perspectives and the wider context as the secret history develops.  Amusingly, Arnott has Zagorski structure one of his own novels in the same way and then gives it mixed reviews, describing the work alternately as ‘a meta-fictional masterpiece’ and ‘a confused and self-indulgent mess.’  I presume he’s alluding to his own hopes and fears for how The House Of Rumour will be received.  Each ‘card’ has a different tone or format.  Some are first person, others third.  There are reports, memoirs, articles.  One segment is the last thoughts of a man as he falls to his death.  I realise this could all sound horribly convoluted, but it plays out beautifully.  The voices of these people ring out true.  The conviction with which Arnott plays this game firmly asserts his mastery of the craft.

The story stretches from just before that fateful journey right up to the present day, flipping back and forth as the dealer places each of the cards in front of us.  Naturally, as a man who tells lies for a living, Arnott has rigged the deck, but that feeds right back in to his key themes of perception and manipulation.  You won’t find buckets of action, alien conspiracies or the like here, but nor is this drab navel-gazing or poncy intellectualisation.  It’s a fun and fascinating read, full of historical and cultural detail.  The spy stuff is suitably thrilling, using Ian Fleming to both mirror and counterpoint Casino Royale.  Aleister Crowley is revealed in all his sordid and crumbling majesty, still sharp enough to play his part for king and country.  Back and forth the cards are flipped and before you know it we’re sharing drinks with Hubbard and Heinlein, plucking fantasies from the air whilst a Cuban poet dreams of revolution and Larry Zagorski tries to get it together with Mary-Lou Gunderson.

Some elements flit past one another unaware whilst others slot together satisfyingly.  In the end  though, the ‘truth’ is as much down to your interpretation as that of the shadowy man holding the deck.  Who knows, it might (just might) all be true.  Pleasingly this is one of those books that makes you immediately want to go back to the beginning to re-read the opening chapters, connecting up the final dots with a smile.  Do yourself a favour and track this one down.  This isn’t a book, it’s a revelation.  You don’t just casually pick it up, whizz through it and start looking for the next bit of fluff.  It’s too wide for your mind.  It’s a spider’s web and you’re just a fly.  It’s a game, a mystery of history laid out in front of you, teasing you with half-truths and outrageous lies.  Want to know more?  Then open the door and step inside… The House Of Rumour.

Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

You can hear me blathering about books on Scrolls, the podcast for literary geekdom here on the Geek Syndicate Network.
You can follow me on Twitter @Dion_Scrolls too if you like.

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