Arts & Entertainment
Bugs! Boxers! Nazis! Murderers! Plot holes!
Book Review: Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman
There is something magical about the opening line of an author’s first novel. Like the initial sip of a vintage from a brand new winery, when done well, an opening line intrigues you, draws you in and entices you to read further. When done badly, it can be like a big swig of watery vinegar. The first sentence in “Boxer, Beetle,” is a real corker: “In idle moments I sometimes like to close my eyes and imagine Joseph Goebbels’ forty-third birthday party.”
With this line, author Ned Beauman introduces his main character, Kevin Broom, a small-time dealer in war memorabilia whose personal hobby is collecting Nazi artifacts. While not bad enough to be considered truly evil, Broom does display just enough venality to be… interesting. “Like all capitalists, I treat the free market like a rich old grandmother, insisting I adore the bitch, calling her spritely, but more than happy to exploit her lethargy and dementia for profit.” Aside from a malleable sense of morality, and his love of Nazi trinkets, Broom’s only other defining characteristic appears to be that he suffers from trimethylaminuria, a rare metabolic disorder that causes one’s body to give off a strong “fishy aroma” — a fact that explains his total lack of a social life, save that of Internet chat rooms and message boards.
Almost immediately Beauman plunges his protagonist into a tangle of murder and intrigue, all centered around Broom’s discovery of a mysterious letter from Adolf Hitler written in 1936 thanking a Dr. Erskine for his “kind gift.” The mysterious existence of a heretofore undiscovered Nazi artifact — one for which mysterious and nameless players are willing to kill at the drop of a hat — is the driving force behind the plot, a force which, as in all good mysteries, propels the story forward and keeps us turning pages.
The second chapter is a kind of flashback to England in the 1930s. In it we are introduced to Seth “Sinner” Roach, a pintsized but nonetheless deadly boxer, and the aforementioned Dr. Philip Erskine, an amateur entomologist and Nazi sympathizer who is about to discover a rather amazing new species of beetle. The combination of these two characters forms the basis for the book’s title.
It soon becomes apparent that “Boxer, Beetle” is really two stories. One set in pre-World War II Great Britain and the other in present day England. Though the interplay between the two plot lines is not seamless, by switching back and forth, the author does succeed rather cleverly in enhancing the tension and suspense as past and present seem to converge on one another like two rollercoaster cars converging toward one another on the same track.
Beauman’s melding descriptions of character and place are often quite good. Take for example this passage on Sinner Roach’s contempt for his father’s meager grocery in a bad section of London: “To Sinner, a market like this was just a ceaseless battle against decay, a mere waiting room for the huge rubbish dump on Back Church Lane: squint for long enough against that high wind of putrefaction, and surely before long it would begin to blow years from your own life, so you’d begin to smell rotten yourself.”
Though it has its moments, sadly, “Beetle” is far from a literary masterpiece. The plot contains more holes than a termite-infested row house and the number of unexplained conveniences is unfortunate. For example, every time Beauman shifts from the past to the present, the present day characters all seem to magically be up to date in their knowledge of what has just taken place, with absolutely no explanation of how they obtained this knowledge.
Another flaw is the monomaniacal nature of the characters. Quite often as I read, I found myself longing for a character who displayed even a modicum of empathy or conscience. Alas, much of “Beetle” seems be about ugly people doing ugly things to even uglier people. Despite numerous deaths in the book, few of the characters seem the slightest bit surprised or troubled by all the corpses that pile up. These objections aside, the book remains a surprisingly easy and entertaining read. Beauman’s intuitive grasp of pace and suspense makes the book hard to put down.
Readers who object to foul language should be forewarned: The dialog in “Boxer, Beetle” is more than a little salty. In addition there is quite a bit of arbitrary — and often senseless — violence. And, although there is not a huge amount of graphic sex, there is a fair amount of repressed (and often not so repressed) homosexuality, mostly in the scenes set in the 1930s.
“Boxer, Beetle” is definitely the work of a young author, one that shows great promise. As a book, it is by no means vinegar; rather, it is merely redolent of a vintage opened a bit too early, one that could have benefitted from a few more seasons in the bottle.
In conclusion, if you’re not snooty about your choice of reading material and are merely looking for a good page-turning mystery — especially if you love movies by directors such as Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino — “Boxer, Beetle” is the book for you. However, if you prefer quieter, more contemplative or intellectual fare, or if you fancy yourself the literary equivalent of a wine snob, you would probably be wise to put this bottle back on the shelf.
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