John Boyne appeared at the 2023 Adelaide Writers’ Week.
Half way through this fourth novel of John Boyne’s, Next of Kin (2006) I thought, ‘What a grubby little tale.’ That turned out to be quite unfair. It’s a crime novel but not a crime mystery; well, it is to everyone except the protagonist and you, the reader; it’s not a ‘who-done-it’ but a ‘will-he-be-caught’. One of Boyne’s major themes in all his work is family, whether it be happy ones or unhappy ones; this one is definitely of the latter.
Set in 1936 in London and the Montignac’s estate, Leyville, it’s a story of an orphaned boy taken in by his wealthy relatives and brought up as one of the family, in fact, the most favoured one, but of course, nothing goes to plan, except the crime. Or does it? No spoilers here. Owen Montignac is a clever handsome man made all the more so by a head of startling white hair. He is conspicuous wherever he goes. He runs a contemporary art gallery, and does quite well, even though his contempt for the overpriced scratchings of the mediocre artists he exhibits is j-u-s-t kept in check by his paper thin charm. He, along with his cousin Stella, are the sole survivors of the Montignac dynasty, Stella’s brother Andrew having been killed in a shooting accident many years earlier and the story opens at the funeral and wake for Stella’s father, Owen’s uncle, Peter Montignac.
This opening scene is a test for the reader. The cast of characters at the funeral is extensive since a lot of the significant backstory and attitudes to the deceased and, of course, the inheritance are exposed via the conversations of the mourners. If you are a reader who usually skips over names you’ll get yourself into serious trouble here. Boyne doesn’t make it easy for you: there are two characters at the wake called Marjory Redmond and Margaret Richmond, one is a minor character, the other a major one, but you don’t know that then. Stay alert! And, as if to test your memory for names, this early scene is juxtaposed with a court case where you will meet more people, the well-respected Judge, Mr Justice Roderick Bentley KC, his wife Jane, always on the lookout for social advancement, especially if it involves The Palace, and their lay-about son Gareth.
What sets this novel above others of its ilk is the important sub-plot of King Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson and the dilemma for the country, and in particular, for the constitutional judiciary, that the King places everyone in: will he or won’t he marry her?
Boyne has never shied away from incorporating real historical people into his fiction: Buffalo Bill in The Congress of Rough Riders (2001), Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty (2008), also published as The Cabin Boy, Tzar Nicolas and the Romanov’s in The House of Special Purpose (2008) and Gore Vidal in A Ladder to the Sky (2018).
How the plot-lines of the Montignacs, the Bentleys, and the future of the English monarchy are interwoven around a crime, its motive, delivery, and resolution is what keeps the reader enthusiastically turning the pages. It’s. Very. Well. Done.
You can purchase the book in various formats here.