I had never heard of Charles Lambert, I must admit, until I received a review copy from Picador of his new paperback original, Any Human Face. He’s written a couple of books before, it seems, and the cover carries a positive blurb from Beryl Bainbridge. The tag-line of this novel is ‘a dark, fast-paced story of love, sex, abduction and murder’, so I decided to give it a go.
It’s the sort of book often marketed as a ‘literary thriller’, but really it’s just a well-written novel with crime at its heart. The action shifts between 1983 and 2008, and a strange sequence of events is linked to a mysterious set of photographs which appear to represent crimes and criminals. The photographs change hands more than once, and it is soon apparent that some very dangerous people want to get hold of them. Eventually, the photographs come into the possession of Andrew, a gay bookseller who is an interesting but rather sad character. He decides to make them the subject of an exhibition – and needless to say, this proves to be a mistake.
A series of short scenes feature the abduction of a young girl, and there is a mystery as to the motive for the kidnapping, as well as about the identities of those responsible. This is not, however, a book which culminates in neat explanations of all that has gone before.
I found this book extremely engaging and I would definitely read more by Charles Lambert, who is a writer of genuine talent. I did feel, however, that the story began to run out of steam towards the end. Lambert eschews a conventional mystery plot structure, which is fine, but I am not convinced he found an entirely satisfactory alternative. From the point where the exhibition attracted the attention of Bad Guys, there was a sense of anti-climax. But one of Lambert’s points is that ‘people will do anything to protect what they have’ and, despite the fact that this ambitious book has some flaws, it’s a point that he makes well.