by Ned Beauman
There are quite a few times when I complain about a book's length. Usually I'll say it's too long and thus drags at parts. "Boxer Beetle" is one of those that's the opposite. At roughly 250 pages, it's really too short for its interconnected plots.
The framing device for the story begins with a London man named Kevin who has a rare medical condition that causes him to smell really bad. (There's a medical term for it I won't attempt to spell.) Kevin is also a collector of Nazi artifacts. Not because he is a Nazi or like Nazis. Like the professor of Hitler Studies in DeLillo's "White Noise", Kevin just sees an opportunity to take advantage of a niche market.
Then one night his employer asks him to check on a private investigator who's looking into the whereabouts of the remains of Seth "Sinner" Roach, a dwarf Jewish boxer back in the '30s. There's also something about a rare beetle bred by Dr. Philip Erskine, a fascist doctor in the '30s interested in beetles and eugenics. But like in many mysteries, when Kevin gets to the PI's office, he finds the investigator dead and is soon visited by a Welsh hitman, who enlists Kevin's help in searching for the boxer and the beetle.
The framing story is then interwoven with those of Roach and Erskine. I'm not sure how much I should mention about that. Suffice it to say that Roach and Erskine's stories overlap in surprising ways.
As I said though, the story is too short. Kevin and the hitman find clues much too easily, with no real obstacles in their path. Their story proves to be less interesting than that of Roach and Erskine and really never contributes anything more than the framing device for the narrative. The relationship between Roach and Erskine is interesting and could have used more exploration. Roach himself is especially interesting and I wish there could be a whole book about just him.
The writing is good, though not great. I found this one passage especially awkward: "Although Sinner tried to be nearly as gentle with Erskine as he'd been with his sister, Erskine soon found himself biting into his own forearm through his shirtsleeve." There's a lot of pronouns and it seems the author switches point of view in mid-sentence. It's the kind of thing I would have pointed out in any critique group for the author to change. Not sure why professional editors don't notice these things.
Anyway, this is an interesting book and a quick read. In terms of historical mysteries it doesn't rise to the level of Byatt's "Possession" but it's not bad either.
That is all.
PS: If you do read this, look for a cameo by the author as one of Kevin's Internet "friends."