Time bandits

The House of Rumour, by Jake Arnott, Sceptre, RRP£17.99, 401 pages

If The House of Rumour’s fragmented narrative can be said to have a protagonist, it is Larry Zagorski, an American science fiction writer of Jake Arnott’s invention who becomes well known during the genre’s 1940s golden age, when SF shook off its trashy associations and began to explore not just far-flung planets but the human condition.

Larry’s life and career meander through SF’s many phases, taking in the 1960s new wave, when optimism failed and cynicism took over, and the cyberpunk movement of the 1980s. Alongside Larry and his acquaintances, Arnott juxtaposes real-life figures inhabiting underworlds that are no less murky and arcane than those of science fiction: demi-mondes where lies, stories, ideological argument and harebrained speculation are the main currency. We even meet Ian Fleming, pre-Bond, in his role as wartime spymaster: “Each person is a dossier, he mused. A bundle of half-known facts, misleading reports, document extracts, fragments.”

There is little that we can take on trust in The House Of Rumour. The novel revels in its ambiguity, suggesting that what we accept as history is just a version of events agreed upon retrospectively but which is by no means accurate. Everything is open to more than one interpretation.

The book is formed of 21 interlocking short stories, some little more than character studies. Each is based on one of the Major Arcana of the tarot deck, drawing its theme from the symbolism of the card, and adding an extra layer of intrigue.

As the stories roll on, Fleming recruits the Great Beast, Aleister Crowley, for an operation to derail the Nazis using occult methods. We also look in on the Cuban revolution, the Jonestown massacre, the rise of the alien abduction phenomenon and, most importantly, the abortive attempt by Rudolf Hess to broker a peace treaty between Germany and the Allies.

There are two further “stories within stories”. One, a novel by an English SF writer called Swastika Night, seems to predict Hess’s mission. The other is a manuscript by a member of British counterintelligence. It purports to tell the truth about Hess – but may be fake.

Arnott made his name with crime novels such as The Long Firm and He Kills Coppers but they were as much about deception and double lives as they were about crooks and thieves. His interest in those ideas here reaches a peak in a work that is meticulously researched, full of skilful literary ventriloquism and the occasional pastiche (the Fleming section, for example, deftly parodies that author’s pragmatic prose style).

Above all, Arnott is forgiving of humankind, of our high aspirations and our failure to meet them, of our low behaviour and our unwillingness to take responsibility for it.

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