I have on my shelf The Mammoth Book of Jacobean Whodunits, an anthology of short stories set in England's post-Elizabethan era. The stories draw in a surprising number of period characters. Shakespeare, Pocahontas, Henry Hudson, and even King James are among the notables written into the tales. This seems to reflect an emerging tendency to people fictional stories with well-known characters from other contexts. These days, everyone from Beau Brummell to Fitzwilliam Darcy are showing up as characters in mystery novels, suspense stories – even horror tales.
I bring this up to prime readers for what to expect from T.M. Doran's Toward the Gleam (Ignatius Press, 2011). I purchased the book partly from shameless self-interest in encouraging Ignatius to publish more fiction, and certainly out of interest in the contents (besides – who can resist a book with a trailer?) But even as I ordered it, I was unclear exactly what type of story it was. I know it had something to do with the Inklings, but the synopses and even the trailer left me wondering: what is this story about? There were hints of a primeval threat and the darkest years of the 20th century, but even as I began reading, I didn't know what to expect.
It turns out that Toward the Gleam is a modern suspense/intrigue novel peopled with well-known historical characters. The protagonist, John, is transparently J.R.R. Tolkien himself, even down to his wife and children's names. The premise of the story is that the saga which became Middle Earth was not imagined but discovered in the form of a carefully hidden book, sealed in a metal box of wondrous make and hidden deeply in a nondescript cave in the English countryside. (There are even hints that it may be the Red Book of Westmarch itself, but that's never made clear.) The mysterious book is written in runes which John, with his philological training, eventually able to translate, and the story of the Great Ring comes to light.
The main tension of the story comes about when John, casting about for scholarly assistance in his efforts to understand his discovery, draws in a mysterious character named Alambert who embodies the ruthlessness of that time in Europe. This antagonist is wealthy, intelligent, and obsessed with any hints of primeval civilization, which he ties to Atlantis. But where John seeks to present the story as a source of wisdom and caution, Alambert seeks the ancient knowledge as a source of power and control. John is very circumspect about his treasure, never even admitting that he has found anything. But the cunning Alambert discerns that John is hiding something rare and – dare we say? - precious, and attempts every means to acquire it.
Thus the story unfolds, the retiring Oxford don matching wits with the unscrupulous rogue. Through its pages wander Chesterton (who warns John against ever contacting Alambert – advice he ignores to his regret), Churchill, Agatha Christie – even Conan Doyle gets an honorable mention. Of course the Inklings are there (without Charles Williams – the body of the tale takes place in the mid-30s), ensconced at the Bird and Baby. It is a classic mystery/intrigue story, with visits to exotic European locales, assassination attempts (which Dolan uses as partial explanation of Tolkien's dread of spiders), a seductress, and even a one-eyed pirate.
Those concerned that Doran may have turned the beloved but retiring Tolkien into a cloak-and-dagger figure can rest easy. Though the plot takes John into some unusual circumstances, it never stretches believability beyond the breaking point. John remains “in character”, responding as one would expect him to. Perhaps the climactic final encounter with the villain is a touch melodramatic, but not so much to spoil the story. Doran is clearly working hard to cast the characters into his plot as the people they were, and render their behaviour accordingly.
Overall, Doran tells a good tale, keeping it reasonably believable (even the Famous Personages), well plotted, and moving along briskly. It might disappoint anyone expecting mythopoeic fiction, but as a suspense/intrigue tale it is worth picking up - though I do wish they'd published a paperback version.
One thing I must admit that mystified me a little, though perhaps this is just me being dense: even as I finished the book, it was never quite sure just what "the gleam" was, and who or what was moving toward it. Maybe Doran could have been a bit more clear about that.
We've got a whole hand now - I still use the Internet lots (Twitter, Instagram, some Facebook) but this space has been sitting quiet for a long time and when I think about it, I just… ...
4 years ago