Friday, 2 November 2001

Peter Guttridge: The Once and Future Con (1999)

Edition: Headline, 1999
Review number: 986

The recent foot and mouth outbreak has shown how much the British rural economy is dependent on tourism rather than simply on agriculture. This industry is increasingly reliant on heritage, as that is one of the UK's major selling points (the other being the convenience to Americans in particular of being and English speaking nation). This humorous crime novel is set in one particularly important yet controversial part of the tourism industry, the heritage built up around the Arthurian legends.

This is, of course, because the legends have been attached to many (incompatible) places, whether by multiple identifications of names in earlier traditions (as with Camelot) or by downright invention in later ones (as with Tintagel). The total absence of artefacts that can be reliably associated with Arthur - assuming that he even existed, which some doubt - also provides opportunities for the unscrupulous. This could be very lucrative; the best known Arthurian sites, Tintagel and Glastonbury, are among the most visited in the country.

The situation is clearly ripe for satire, especially given that most tourists are not interested in historical accuracy. They want a good time, and for many this means a theme park style experience which is like the films they have seen - fifteenth century jousts not fifth century cattle rustling. The Once and Future Con attempts to do just this, being about a murder investigation during the inauguration of a theme park centred around the supposedly newly discovered bodies of Arthur and Guinevere.

Unfortunately, the novel is neither funny enough to succeed as a satire, nor is the mystery absorbing enough for it to succeed as part of the crime genre. Indeed, I spent quite a lot of time while reading it wondering whether it was worth the effort, and continued mainly because that involved less thought than finding another book to read. It is mildly entertaining, but not as good as the reviews imply that Guttridge's earlier Nick Madrid novels are.

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