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Allen Kurzweil White

Arrow £6.99pbk

Reviewed by L.J.Hurst


Like some complicated clock, Allen Kurzweil works certainly, but slow. A Case of Curiosities appeared in 1992, nearly ten years before The Grand Complication, his second novel. And here it is in paperback a year later. A Case of Curiosities was a work by one of several authors all chancing to find a readership at the same time, all working in historical grotesquerie - authors such as the Italian Umberto Eco (The Name Of The Rose), the Geman Patrick Susskind (Perfume) and the Briton Lawrence Norfolk (Lempriere's Dictionary). Allen Kurzweil is an American married to a Frenchwoman.

A Case of Curiosities told of an instrument- and watch-maker in eighteenth century Paris who ended in a ghastly execution. Now The Grand Complication takes a case of curiosities (boxes once fashionable which brought together disparate but interesting items), with one item missing - a watch alleged to have belonged to Marie Antoinette. Alexander Short, a nerdish reference librarian, is our narrator, lured into the search for the missing watch by the mischievous, Machiavellian and anachronistic Henry James Jesson III. Alexander is married to a Frenchwoman, but his marriage is at risk from his failure in his marital responsibilities, and his character is such that he seems to be at the bottom of the feeding pile that is the library staff. Millionaire Jesson's search offers him something to take his mind away from his everyday life.

The Grand Complication is a light work - Alexander clearly comes from a good family, his conversations bounce along, he is never at serious threat, though the complications mount, and the general tone is never dark. Though the plotting seems to threaten to spiral into the manic worlds of a Frederick Brown or a John Franklin Bardin something turns this back, so that this novel seems closer to Parnell Hall or Vincent Lardo, those authors who write about the goofball American upper classes today.

Those who admire plotting will gasp at Kurzweil's use of the macguffin, as even the existence of the watch becomes doubtful, while Alexander's reconciliation with his wife gets built into the story line, too. In other words, for all the importance of the text I think this book is more like an Alfred Hitchcock or Brian De Palma movie than any classic, nightmarish novel of New York, and knowing A Case of Curiosities that surprised me.