For his latest novel, Jim Crace has bravely attempted to write a thriller, with decidedly mixed results, says Adam Mars-Jones

The knight, despite its eccentric progress, can reach every square on the chess board without going back on itself – and that’s the best I can do, in terms of finding an image for Jim Crace’s literary career. Crace, born in 1946 and so a contemporary of Julian Barnes, a little older than Ian McEwan and Martin Amis, made his mark later than those three, with Continent (1986), which used the refractory form of the linked set of stories. Since then, every move has been oblique in terms of genre and setting, a series of readable books (though I admit to having struggled with Being Dead) forming no readable pattern of development.

If Crace has stylistic fingerprints, he’s been busy sanding them down. In earlier books, he showed a taste for the bogus epigraph and in novels as different as Arcadia and the brilliant Quarantine would intermittently drop into suppressed blank verse, an effect that can seem magnificent in Moby-Dick but maddening anywhere else. His new book, All That Follows, is free of these hallmarks and shows a closer fit with genre fiction than anything he has previously published. It’s a thriller lightly set in the future (the mid 2020s) rather than a futuristic thriller as such, like Blade Runner (set in 2019), where technology plays a starring rather than supporting role.

Leonard Lessing, a jazz musician on the eve of his 50th birthday, recognises a hostage-taker on the news – not by his face but his distinctive hair – as someone from his mildly activist past. He becomes lightly embroiled in the developing drama, making contact with the hostage-taker’s daughter who has an idea of her own for breaking the deadlock, if only Lennie will commit himself decisively.

That’s just the trouble. Lennie is attracted to sparkiness, particularly in women, but that’s because he never reaches flashpoint himself. Even when he was a young man, his politics were extreme but, as he himself acknowledges, tentatively held. He has a history of backing down.

Lennie’s professional name is Lennie Less, which guarantees benign heckles of “Less is more”. His life as a tenor saxophonist is neatly used to set out his character. For him as he grew up, music was “as personal and clandestine as sex”. He treasures the “fussy, varicose technology” of his instrument and exploits the way it obscures his face at the very moment when he is expressing himself least self-consciously. Jazz is his way of being in the moment, of acting in good faith, of being authentic. Yet even here there are qualms, hints of copping out.

The spontaneity of jazz improvisation depends on safety nets of musical formulae, not to mention webs of rapport with other performers built up over time. That’s why Lennie treasures one gig in particular, when the rest of the band was held up by bad weather and he had to take the stage alone, creating a full musical landscape from the simplest and most familiar elements – nursery rhymes. That was the night he met his wife, Francine, so that she measures him by his life’s high point of adventurousness, a blessed blip. The marriage isn’t unhappy, but her expectations have tailed off and he has plenty to prove.

The strain of existentialism in Lennie’s mental make-up might fit better with someone of Crace’s age than someone supposedly born in 1975, but this is still effective character-drawing, certainly surplus to the requirements of a thriller.

The book’s plotting doesn’t exactly fall short, though it does depend on there being public phone boxes in the 2020s, so that a girl being sought by the authorities can contact a friend without being traced. The problem is more that Lennie’s reflex flinch seems to affect his creator also. The genre requires that the hero will coincide with moments of crisis, even if he’s only passing by to pick up his car, and Jim Crace respects that obligation.

But the genre requires a lot more, in terms of the discharge of emotion, and the penalty for anticlimax is quite high. If you have a menacing figure from the hero’s past who thinks that “violence is the poor man’s repartee”, then there must be a confrontation. The appetite for excitement can’t be sated with snacks of muted incident, however salted with irony.

If Jim Crace was going to disown the strong effects of tension and violence, then what did he think the thriller form had to offer him? What did he think he could offer in return? When a literary novelist uses genre elements, we expect not a smooth embrace between the different sets of assumptions but a certain amount of productive friction. In Ian McEwan’s The Innocent, the presence of a dead body was made into something grisly and irreducible, rather than a prop of the escapist formula that could be tidied away. When Rose Tremain wrote The Way I Found Her, she was able to include into her adventure story format a thread of intergenerational sexuality which would have seemed much less palatable tackled directly. But Jim Crace’s embrace of the thriller is more air-hug than bear-hug.

If Aristotle had got round to formulating a philosophy of the thriller as well as of tragedy, he might have proposed that it provides a junior catharsis, scaled down for Greek beach rather than Greek amphitheatre, the purging agents in this case not pity and terror but tension and the sheer need to know what happens over the page. These are less exalted drives, but in their own way they are implacable, not to be fobbed off once invoked. It’s very easy to get stranded in a no-man’s-land of genre. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds