Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung
With Sam Bourne’s fifth novel you get a lot for your money, there is a pantheon of fiction within its covers, as James Zennor, veteran of the Spanish Civil War returned to his Oxford University post, cycles home up the Banbury Road only to discover his wife has disappeared along with his son.
Subject to berserk rages, perhaps as a result of his war-time injuries, Zennor has difficulty discovering how and why mother and child have left the war-time city or where they might have gone. Paranoia starts to show as his post slips from home to college, but he eventually discovers that Florence and Harry have taken ship for the USA, although that involves him in some dispute at the Liverpool docks. A spot of blackmail and he is able to follow the pair across the Atlantic and to New Haven, Connecticut, along the way discovering that Florence and Harry are just two of a larger university evacuation party whose ultimate destination is the fellow university, Yale.
An American university in a country that has not known a year at war, a country where troops have not stumbled back from Dunkirk only the previous month, where the Luftwaffe has not begun its threatened blitz: where could it be better for husband, wife and son to re-unite? Except that she is not there, Zennor cannot find Florence, her billet is unknown. No wonder Zennor rages again, and is noticed, though not so desirable that his one informant is murdered and Zennor become the suspect. So it goes. Or in the case of Pantheon, so it goes on.
Getting a lot for your money may be fine if you have not read it before. Say, if you had not noticed the previous occurrence of a crippled war-time protagonist in Nigel Balchin’s Small Back Room, if Tyler Kent and his meetings at London’s Russian Tea Rooms had not been used by John Lawton, if the pro-fascist Right Club had not been featured in Foyle’s War, then Pantheon might seem very original, otherwise it creates difficulties. While at Yale, Zennor discovers the secret societies such as the Skull And Bones which have been alleged to have had a baleful influence on American life for over a century, but they are nothing to do with the conspiracy that has separated him from his wife and son. In fact, Bourne has invented it, it is hardly credible, and scarcely borne out by the sources he quotes in his final Author’s Note.
Plotting, as earlier critics have pointed out, is not Bourne’s strong point with events just following one another, but neither is character development, with the revelations of the supreme villain’s wooing of Florence particularly weak. There seems to be some dubious history as well: I noticed that Zennor has eaten in a British Restaurant in Oxford months before that movement started in London or spread to the rest of the country.
Oxford in war-time was a strange place, and there are bleak and interesting books about it, but I think that Pantheon is not one of them. On the other hand, if you want paranoia, flash-backs to the fighting in Spain, the threat of Hitler and the chance to escape only to find that that opportunity is a greater danger then you will find it all here.