Carnage on the Committee - Irish Times review
A scurrilous story of slaughter and scribbling
Crime: Not many writers can, or would dare to, turn carnage into comedy. Ruth Dudley Edwards does; and when you put the book down you're still laughing, writes Brendan Kennelly.
When Hermione Babcock, chairperson of the committee that is trying to decide on the winner of the financially huge Knapper-Warburton Literary Prize, is murdered, the world of the judges borders on mayhem. But a new chairperson is found: Baroness Troutbeck, also known as Jack, Mistress of Saint Martha's, Cambridge, a spreadeagled lover of cigars and whiskey, proud owner of a garrulous parrot, a scurrilously funny lady who mixes verbal outrageousness with moments of shrewd diplomacy in a convincing manner. Jack is in many ways the hilarious heart of this brilliantly funny book. She abuses others with comic eloquence; prejudices reel off her tongue; she's a lawless, potentially murderous driver on the roads of England; she has a genius for wicked caricature; and such is her anarchic, ludic spirit that she can turn murder, four murders in fact, into hair-raising hilarity. In Jack's bizarre company, horror is good for a giggle.
Jack's centrality in the novel is due not just to her character, which should perhaps be repulsive yet somehow becomes oddly attractive, but also to Ruth Dudley Edwards's ability to make dialogue do the work of narrative. In this book, conversation is narrative; and the device works brilliantly. It also means that Jack's scurrilous eloquence is one of the book's most effective driving forces, and so we get revealing torrents of literary gossip, chats about love affairs and hate affairs, telling insights into politics, families, education, novels and novelists, poets and poetry, and of course into the characters' lives and the apparently endless problems of the judges of the Knapper-Warburton Prize.
Practically everything and everybody in this book are over the top. But that is an essential part of its charm. If it didn't deal in comic caricature it wouldn't be so effective. There are moments when Ruth Dudley Edwards is like a 21st-century combination of Flann O'Brien and Jonathan Swift. Her sophistication and skill make her emotional and intellectual savagery fill the reader's heart and mind with thoughtful laughter.
Finally, somehow or other, despite four murders and other murders promised, the threatened judges arrive at a winner of The Prize. But somehow that doesn't seem important, or at least not very important. What matters is the fact that the reader has been given so many insights into so many problems, ideas, people, institutions, uses of language, values, in a spirit of eloquent, bitter, beguiling fun. Not many writers can, or would dare to, turn carnage into comedy. Ruth Dudley Edwards does; and when you put the book down you're still laughing.
Brendan Kennelly is Professor of Modern Literature at Trinity College, Dublin. His most recent book, Familiar Strangers, is published by Bloodaxe Books
Carnage on the Committee. By Ruth Dudley Edwards, Harper Collins, 246pp. £17.99