Killing time after her last show abruptly closed, Lucy decides to visit her pregnant sister on the beautiful island of Corfu. She soon learns that the island is swarming with mysterious characters - including a legendary actor, his composer son, a toff-stroke-photographer, a friendly dolphin and a host of naive natives.
Although I knew this was going to be a mystery (bloodshed - huzzah!), I approached the book with trepidation. As much as I like John Fowles, I'm certainly not up to re-reading The Magus during rush hour. Similarly, the cover hinted toward some sort of neo-Gothic monstrosity - dispossessed noblemen and philosopher-heiresses dash around quoting poetry and invariably becoming trapped in the bell-tower.
My worries grew - and I'm sorry to confess this, as it only reflects badly on me - when I discovered it was written in the first person. Not only, I worried, would I have to read about the insecurities of some vapid philosopher/poetry-quoter, I was actually being assigned to empathize with her. (Kind of like I've being doing with the post so far - get it?)
The book quickly put all my fears to rest. By the end of the first chapter, I was very happy seeing the world through Lucy Waring's eyes. I think the ultimate bonding occurred when she confessed that she really wasn't a very good actress - at that point I knew that this wasn't going to feature some sort of plot-swept, wind-swept Gothic heroine, but actually a very good yarn, with a very, enjoyable, human narrator.
As a thriller, the danger is small-scale and intimate, but no less suspenseful for it. Although a vague Communist threat is presented, explained and promptly ignored, Lucy and her friends' efforts to fight the forces of evil are much more personal. The murders, even of strangers, are acutely felt, and Lucy's reaction to them (no fainting, just steely resolve) helps make them more real.
There are a few notable concessions to genre conventions. All the members of the opposite sex on the island are, of course, very attractive. Corfu is swarming with handsome young men, all of whom find Lucy irresistible.
Also, as with any good internationally-placed thriller, the natives have very little to do with anything. The Greek people come across as generous and naive, but not very bright. Most of them are possessed with typical peasant mojo - they're able to repair a car, but not drive one. And, of course, they're completely incapable of solving a crime (or even noticing one). Thank god for the British, eh?
These concessions to conventions are balanced out by a few deliberate attempts at subversion as well. One exceptional moment has Lucy captured by the enemy. Although fiercely intelligent, she acts the stupid little ingenue in order to wiggle her way out of the situation (all the while looking for a serviceable weapon). It is especially entertaining given the immense vanity of the villain - who strikes me as a pretty good imitation of the typical Sixties pulp hero. As much as I like Shell Scott and Chester Drum (and James Bond, for that matter), it does raise the question, 'How many of those women would rather just be hitting you over the head right now?'.
After some commutes filled with truly horrific fiction, I was starting to dread the morning train. This Rough Magic, however, arrived just in time to restored my faith in cheap fiction. Fortunately, it isn't my place (or my goal) to do a deep and insightful analysis of gender roles. Instead, I'm just happy that I finally got a decent book to read on the tube.
Tube journeys: 2