A dark Da Vinci code

For a writer who has been described as a comic genius and the P G Wodehouse of moral depravity, Paul Torday’s latest book has, as the author himself admits, been rated as his darkest, featuring as it does a serial-killer of children who targets a rural community on the Tyne, a north-east England River, which flows through what the local authorities describe as an AONB — Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The killer Gabriel Merkin is not a sexual pervert, but a taxidermist who has graduated to embalming and who wants to create a macabre and literally still-life form of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper by kidnapping and killing 13 children with an overdose of diamorphine, so that he can embalm and arrange them in the same positions as the figures in the great painting.

The action takes place less than a hundred miles away from where Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Kidnapped is set. However, compared to Stevenson’s Ebenezer Balfour, who has his nephew David kidnapped and shanghaied in 1751, Torday’s 21st-century Merkin comes across as the ultimate in evil who is on the prowl for angelic-looking children so that he can blasphemously desecrate the vision which inspired Leonardo da Vinci some 515 years ago. Innocent children are that much easier to kidnap than adults and the angelic-looking Theo is killed and embalmed to play the role of the saviour in this diabolic distortion of the Da Vinci vision.

Towards the end of the second stanza of his poem September 1, 1939, the poet Auden wrote: I and the public know/ What all schoolchildren learn,/ Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return. Auden later acknowledged that the injustice of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles could in no way justify the horror of the Holocaust to follow in the last few years of World War II.

In an interview on his latest book with The Independent (dated January 27, 2013), Torday has been quoted as saying, “I tried and tried to imagine the mind of a man who is not really human, which was almost impossible. Is he really a victim of a nasty upbringing, or a thoroughly evil person? I incline to the second view.” Torday goes on to ask, “Is there a moral blankness in society now, because religion has retreated so much from our lives? We (the UK) are a very modern, sophisticated nation and yet we continue to tolerate levels of cruelty against children, which just seem extraordinary.”

In typical British bureaucratic style, regional children’s commissioners (called children’s czars in the tabloids) are appointed to protect the kids. However, the micro — in this case the child — gets lost in the macro of crime statistics, which the children’s czars reel off without intervening since their role is supposed to be strategic and not operational even in areas of darkness, where parents are too addicted to drugs and booze to care for the kids: “Every five minutes, a child goes missing in the UK, half-a-million children recorded as the victims of violent crimes in England and Wales, 43,000 the subject of child-protection plans, 13,000 of them under four years old.”

The light shining in the forest could, in Torday’s book, ultimately be the children themselves. Two of the little girls are rescued before they can be killed and one of them, Becky Thomas, wants to return home so that she can look after her mom who has started drinking ever since the child’s father was killed while soldiering in Iraq. Becky maintains that she and the other little girl Karen are alive because the boy Theo kept speaking on their behalf to the abductor even after being killed and embalmed.

The boy is remembered by his teacher as a normal, happy, well-adjusted child about whom she had written in the autumn-term report, “Theo has a calming effect on the other children in his class and is a valued member of our little community.”

And Stokoe, who finally intervenes to find the children, gives up his detached bureaucratic career to become a conscientious priest. And the unemployed journalist Willie Craig, who accompanies the bureaucrat on the mission of finding the children, has the last word: “If Norman Stokoe was right and this was the second coming of Christ, it would be a bit rough, wouldn’t it? First time he turns up, he gets crucified, the second time he’s murdered by an overdose of diamorphine.”

For someone whose first novel Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was published to rave reviews in 2007 when he was nudging 60, Torday seems to be making up for lost time, averaging a book a year since then. His Light Shining in the Forest may be a mixture of genres (part-thriller, part-satire, part-horror-story, and part-fable), but it is fully and eminently readable.

Light shining in the forest
Paul Torday
Hachette
2013, pp 344
695

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