The Fountain in the Forest

Experimental fiction and the detective genre have often been unlikely but effective partners in crime. Think Alain Robbe-Gillet’s The Erasers, Manuel Puig’s The Buenos Aires Affair or the novels of Friedrich Durrenmatt. That this has been less of a feature in the UK (David Peace apart) is perhaps to be expected, but in Tony White’s The Fountain in the Forest we have a crime novel which fully embraces Oulipian ideals. White has spoken both of his love of the genre and his desire to reach beyond it:

“…with The Fountain in the Forest I was looking to bring both traditions together: Ellery Queen’s laying bare of the machinery of the thriller, and the lightness and experimentation of Gertrude Stein.”

The novel, which is the first of a trilogy, is structured according to the French Revolutionary or Republican calendar:

“…each day of the year has equal value and none are dedicated to royalty or religion, but instead celebrate the stuff of everyday rural life, from primroses, mushrooms and rhubarb to livestock animals, natural medicines and tools. It also has a 10-day weeks, so when looked at through the Republican calendar these 90 days in 1985 between the end of the [Miners’] Strike and the Battle of the Beanfield become nine revolutionary weeks.”

In setting the novel in 1985, White tackles a time of great social change yet one largely neglected by novelists (again, Peace is a notable exception, having written one of the few novels of the Miners’ strike, GB84). The novel begins in the present day, however, with (of course) the discovery of a body in a workshop where theatrical backdrops are painted. The workshop belongs to Detective Sergeant Rex King’s friend, Terry, and his initial assumption is that he will be able to identify the corpse, even with its nose cut off. The relief of non-recognition is short-lived:

“If that wasn’t Terry Hobbs’s body in the frame, as it were, then Terry could be in another kind of frame for killing whoever the fuck it really was.”

Rex unearths further clues at the crime scene, though Terry’s whereabouts remain unknown. Meanwhile he has to contend with the fact that the detective in charge, Eddie Webster, is married to his ex, and the threat of a death in custody being re-investigated hanging over his head:

“Yes, Trevor Tennyson had died on Rex’s watch. The otherwise fit thirty-year-old postman had asphyxiated while being restrained following a scuffle as he was escorted to the custody suite having been booked for throwing an egg at some minor league banker during the Occupy protests.”

In other words, White has a firm grip on the genre, its language and procedures, all the while coping with a mandated vocabulary which requires him to use the answers to the Guardian Quick Crossword for each day during that ninety day period, one per chapter. White has said, “the mandated vocabulary dictates everything – not just names, places, objects and animals, and the historical figures that are cited… but the story itself.” He also argues:

“The crossword solutions themselves bring a shot of period authenticity, each one a 26 word time capsule.”

It is only in the novel’s middle section, more than a hundred pages in, that we finally reach 1985 itself. This is particularly risky in a detective novel, seemingly diverting us into another story entirely without even a common character name to hold onto. It begins with the arrival of a young Englishman, JJ, at a commune in the deserted village of La Fontaine-en-Forte in the South of France. His existence there is almost idyllic, falling in love with one of the women, Sylvie, and planning to re-open an abandoned bakery in the village:

“JJ felt really touched; honoured. Since he had arrived in La Fontaine-en-Forte… JJ had been made to feel nothing but welcome.”

Although he does not want to leave he agrees to return temporarily to England with one of the other commune members, Milo, to smuggle some wine and hash into the country and join the Peace Convoy heading to a festival at Stonehenge. As we enter the third part the two stories collide to provide the answers to Rex’s investigation.

The Fountain in the Forest is, first and foremost, an excellent detective novel. Rex not only manages to walk the mean streets but tread the fine line between three dimensional character and classic cop. The use of mandated vocabulary, presented in bold, is fascinating because it is possible to see the way it influences the story from single sentence to plot-point. Perhaps the novel’s most impressive achievement, however, is to revisit the politics of the 1980s, contending that the events of that decade not only reverberate in Rex’s life but echo through modern Britain. Two further volumes are to be welcomed.

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3 Responses to “The Fountain in the Forest”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    You had me at the mention of OuLiPo…. ) But I love the sound of this anyway – fascinating! Straight onto the wishlist! 🙂

  2. A few more reviews and a favour? | Piece of Paper Press Says:

    […] The Fountain in the Forest is, first and foremost, an excellent detective novel. Rex not only manage… […]

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