Not saying what one means or meaning what one says

This is my review of The London Satyr by Robert Edric.

I found this the most successful of the six Edric novels I have attempted – two of which I abandoned, but I keep returning to his work for the clear, striking prose – excellent in creating atmosphere and describing scenes – and his concern with people's motivations and relationships.

The theme is an intriguing one – moral corruption beneath a layer of respectability in 1890s London. The topic has not yet been done to death, although covered by the recently televised "The Crimson Petal and the White", an overblown rose next to this much shorter, more narrowly focussed work.

Webster is a photographer employed by the Lyceum Theatre under its flamboyant actor-manager Irving and his control-freak sidekick, Stoker. Webster has drifted into a financial arrangement with Marlow, "the London satyr", the suave pornographer who needs him to "lend" theatrical costumes for use in sleazy photo sessions. Webster is an enigmatic man. Perhaps he likes the secrecy, the risk of detection, the fact of not being quite what he seems. Perhaps he feels his own guilt is minimal, since he is merely a supplier, an observer of a seedy but intriguing world, without knowing exactly what is going on. The murder of a child prostitute by a man in Marlow's circle sets up a criminal investigation which forces Webster to think about whether and how to protect himself.

The fact that Webster often seems weak and passive make him a less attractive character. Why doesn't he stand up to his greedy, manipulative daughter or over-familiar, cunning maidservant? Yet some of the most moving passages in the book provide the explanation for his apathy and for his loss of connection with his wife Alice, for both have been devastated by the premature death of their younger daughter.

Edric also harnesses the late Victorian obsession with the spirit world. Grief has led Alice to set herself up as a medium. Webster's scepticism is a further barrier between them, but he plays along, even supplying information that will help her act out convincing contacts with the spirit world. He makes no attempt to step in, even when it becomes clear that her main motivation is the morbid delusion that dead souls are speaking to her through her deceased child.

At first, I found the lengthy dialogues entertaining, but soon began to feel that they are too much of a substitute for real action. The continual game-playing, with characters not meaning what they say, or saying what they mean, begin to seem contrived. Some scenes appear wooden and clunky, perhaps because the author has laboured over the words at the expense of the narrative drive. Also, too many of the characters – be they a Jewish immigrant, a female procurer or a servant – speak in the same subtly ironic "voice" and very articulate phrases as the educated middle-class characters.

I felt for a while that the plot is too slight to sustain the book. In fact, it manages to work up to a kind of climax. The inconclusive ending – the story simply stops – disappointed me at first, but then seemed to be quite reasonable. Edric has made his point, and leaves you to draw your own conclusions about how Webster goes on to live out his life.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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