Challenging; harrowing; satisfying

The Company of FellowsThe Company of Fellows by Dan Holloway
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It begins so quietly, this novel. So unostentatiously. Granted, there are two corpses in Chapter 1 – it is a murder mystery, after all – but there is little, at first, to indicate that The Company of Fellows is anything other than just another detective story set in Oxford, following in the well-worn footprints of Morse.

The writing is a good deal better than Colin Dexter’s, which is to be expected. But in other respects the early chapters came as a surprise. For Dan Holloway is a tireless and selfless champion of alternative, edgy, indie writing (some of it, it must be said, a long way removed from his own literary calibre). Yet here he seems to be embarking on something more mainstream – an honest to goodness murder mystery, a thumping good read which manages to remain thought-provoking, told with flair, panache and insight.

It isn’t that simple, of course. Holloway’s calm, unemotional prose draws you along until you find yourself enmeshed in a harrowing ethical dilemma. And here it does get edgy, in content if not in style. The reader will need a strong stomach and colossal control of their own emotions to read beyond a certain point, but, despite the enormity of his subject matter, Holloway handles it with sensitivity and humanity. Moreover, he is not being gratuitously scatological: he has a reason to go where he does, though not every reader should be expected to go there with him.

There are many different Oxfords, in literature as in life. One suspects this particular Oxford, with its blend of rarefied collegiate life and thriving alternative culture, would be more familiar to Sergeant Hathaway than to either Morse or Lewis; certainly Holloway himself is very much at home there. The descriptions are clear, accurate and specifically Oxonian – and they are far more perceptive than most observations of Oxford, particularly about the mechanics of academe. (The comment – is the narrator’s tongue resting lightly inside his cheek? – about the Warden’s knack “of being someone who brought funding with him wherever he went” rings absolutely true.)

Above all, this is an Oxford peopled with true intellectuals, people who can deduce an entire chain of events from a single line in a page of research notes – and moreover, with characters who can read one another’s thoughts, motives and intentions from nothing more than a twitch of an eyebrow. My own eyebrow was raised fractionally at the idea that there might be so many people with such similar skills – from reading body-language to gourmet cuisine – in such close proximity, but if I had to suspend my disbelief at this, I did so willingly.

For Holloway is at his strongest when describing the inner workings of these characters, their thought processes and motives, particularly in the case of his protagonist Tommy West. He has endowed Tommy with an impressive quantity of baggage which will, no doubt, allow much scope for introspection and further character development in the two sequels promised for 2011 and 2012. Other characters are equally complex, particularly Professor Charles Shaw (the second of the corpses), whose motives do not always appear clear or consistent; it will take a second reading to understand him more fully.

It is no disrespect to Holloway’s impressive indie credentials to say that the book needs a thorough proofread. Along with a small handful of continuity errors (which could be easily corrected without damage to plot or structure), one’s attention is constantly distracted by typos – at least one or two per page – which in some cases leave one in the tantalising position of not knowing what the author meant to say.

However, no quantity of typos can turn good writing into bad, and this is very good writing. I very much look forward to the next Tommy West novel, All the Dark Places, scheduled for release in December 2011.

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