Wednesday, 27 October 1999

Michael Moorcock: The English Assassin (1972)

Edition: Fontana, 1988
Review number: 372

The third novel in the Jerry Cornelius tetralogy explores the series themes of dissolution and anarchy in a rather different way from the earlier books. Here, protagonist and storyline fragment as well as the background.

The novel starts with the discovery of a dead body in Merlin's Cave, beneath Tintagel Castle in Cornwall. The body belongs to Cornelius, but he doesn't stay dead long. Each section of the novel sees Jerry initiating a different apocalypse set in a different version of the Earth. Moorcock establishes each background quickly, in a manner clearly learned from the best science fiction short story writers. Recurring characters (from earlier novels) crop up again and again in slightly different guises, and Mrs Cornelius, Jerry's monstrous mother, takes a more central role than she did before. Self references (and external ones) abound; characters from other Moorcock novels, ideas from The Final Programme and A Cure for Cancer - particularly the idea of total destruction as a cure for the cancer eating away at society - reappear.

Realism is brought back by the use of real newspaper quotations about violent death, mainly of young children. This is an effective method of stopping the effect of each catastrophe being like Hollywood special effects - a spectacle which does not have any real consequences.

The English Assassin is one of Moorcock's best novels, admirably fulfilling its role as the penultimate volume in a series by never quite containing a satisfactory conclusion, always leaving the reader wanting a bit more.

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