Lion Heart, by Justin Cartwright, Bloomsbury, RRP£18.99, 330 pages
Lion Heart is part love story, part grail quest, part historical detective novel. It features a Le Carré-esque Oxford spy, Dan Brown gets a name-check and 21st-century counter-terrorism coppers rub shoulders with 12th-century knights and kings.
The publicity blurb describes this brew as “a religious quest in the vein of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose but … also a contemporary tale of belief, identity, the nature of fiction and heartbreaking drama”. I wondered whether the accomplished novelist Justin Cartwright had, in fact, set himself the challenge of spinning together as many literary genres as he could while keeping the narrative coherent.
Richie Cathar is a thirtysomething unemployed Oxford graduate haunted by the memory of his dead father, a clever chancer who was sent down from the same university in a 1960s drugs scandal. Cathar senior, a rotten dad but an alluring charmer, had been obsessed with the crusading king, Richard the Lionheart (thus Richie’s name), and Cathar junior decides to follow up his father’s research. On the rebound from a relationship gone sour, he leaves London for Jerusalem.
While studying there, he picks up clues that Richard brought a piece of the True Cross back from the Crusades. He also falls in love with Noor, a Canadian-Arab journalist he meets in the American Colony Hotel’s Cellar Bar, a notorious haunt for hacks and spooks.
The American Colony is one of my favourite hotels. Richie is in room six (rooms in single figures are prized because, it is said, they housed the wives of the Ottoman merchant whose home the building once was) and I recognised the “stone flags, smoothed by the passage of soft Turkish carpet slippers” and the grand bathroom where he assumes “the habits of a pasha”.
Cartwright has caught the unsettling beauty of Jerusalem, a city thick with the “human longing for certainty”, where “creased Bedouin women in embroidered dresses and triangular jewellery sit patiently outside Jaffa Gate to sell vegetables, where young Arab men, in strangely faded jeans and knock-off trainers, push trolleys of foodstuffs, where in countless cafés men contemplate what might have been, their hair failing, their faces turning to yellowed ochre, as though the tea they drink endlessly is staining them from the inside”.
The book’s quests take us to Oxford, the grottier bits of north London, provincial France and a Greek island – all evoked with the same vividness. Noor disappears while on assignment and Richie’s search for her is one of the book’s driving narratives. But this is also the story of his adventures as a scholar-detective seeking King Richard’s True Cross, and of his yearning for peace with the ghost of his father. Cartwright carries the reader through all this with the energy of his writing; people and places become so real that even the more fantastic twists in the plot become believable.
And he has done his spade work on the history. The account of Richard’s negotiations with Saladin, his journey home from the Holy Land and his power struggles with his brother John and Philip, king of France, ring true and the Lionheart emerges as an intriguing character.
The breathless pace of the story does, however, seem to have infected the editing process. Richie appears to be told the same news twice within three pages – a family revelation so shattering that even Sophocles might have thought twice about introducing it, so it is odd that it is handled carelessly.
When we first meet Richie he seems a sad-sack, barbecuing sausages over a fire of damp carpet in his garden (a “toxic, dark, cat-fouled, medieval strip of dank dead clay”); annoying his girlfriend by leaving his underpants on the sitting room floor and making bitter comments about people he observes on public transport. But he suddenly blossoms into a brilliant scholar, dab hand with the 12-bore on a smart pheasant shoot, and an astonishingly successful seducer. Every attractive woman he meets – from a doctor in a mental hospital to a countess who breeds polo ponies – wants to jump into bed with him. In a book full of fantasy, the central character was, oddly, the one thing I could not quite believe in.
Edward Stourton is author of ‘Cruel Crossing’ (Doubleday)