Wednesday, 18 June 2008

James Wilson: The Dark Clue: A Novel of Suspense (2001)

Published: Faber & Faber, 2001

The Dark Clue is a sequel, of sorts, to Wilkie Collins' classic The Woman in White. It has the same central characters: artist Walter Harkwright, and his sister-in-law Marion. Rich from his marriage but still relatively unsuccessful as an artist, Walter is approached to write a biography of JMW Turner, as a counterblast from still-living friends of the famous artist to a scurrilous biography raking up scandal (the actual first biography of Turner by Walter Thornbury). But as he and Marion investigate, they discover that Turner did indeed have a dark side, and the truth about the revolutionary painter is at the least going to be more complicated than Walter's initial assessment that his "life of him will be quick work indeed".

The Dark Clue re-uses the narrative technique of The Woman in White, purporting to be a collection of letters and diary entries, with Marion's diary being probably the chief source. While Laura, Walter's beloved in Collins' novel and now his wife, was absent from the stage for most of The Woman in White, she appears only as the author of a handful of letters in The Dark Clue, which mostly are complaints that Walter is neglecting her and their children. Wilson picks up on the feeling that must strike most readers of Collin's novel, that Walter and Marion would be extremely well suited to each other, while Laura is an abstraction for which he unfortunately develops a romantic passion. For Collins, Laura is a personification of persecuted innocent beauty (a very Victorian female character); for Wilson, she is a personification of a dutiful wife and mother. For both, she is a cipher, at best a passive plot device, and not really a character at all.

The differences between the two writers is perhaps best seen in their handling of the relationship between Walter and Marion. Collins, as far as I remember, leaves their interest in each other unspoken, unacknowledged even by the characters themselves. Wilson, more direct, engineers a moment of self revelation for Marion which beings a new dark note to their research together. Writing at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Wilson can obviously be far more graphic than Collins, about this and other aspects of the novel as well. This makes The Dark Clue more immediate, but much less subtle than The Woman in White. For much of the earlier novel, Collins sets up an air of menace that seems far beyond what Wilson's straightforwardness can do. Even so, he manages to leave the exact nature of Turner's scandalous activities frustratingly unspecified, preferring to concentrate on the effect that learning about them has on Walter's morals; I found this very unsatisfying indeed. The consequent lack of impact makes the subtitle "a novel of suspense" seem rather inaccurate; I assumed that it was one more item inherited from Collins' novel, but this is not the case.

Turner clearly would be a great subject for a biography, whether the biographer believed the more scandalous stories or not. But the structure of The Dark Clue is not really suited to a biography in the way that it is to the unravelling of the murky plots in The Woman in White. This is a novel where the initial idea is more interesting than its execution; it could have been another French Lieutenant's Woman but isn't well enough done to reach anywhere near that level.

While it is fairly obvious to compare a sequel to a classic novel with the original, this is not always something which the reader feels inclined to do. There are, for example, many sequels to Pride and Prejudice which make no attempt to be anything other than humorous romantic novels, and it is perfectly reasonable for them to succeed on that level without approaching the greatness of Jane Austen. But Wilson fairly clearly sets out to write a novel which is a worthy partner to The Woman in White (and the blurb and reviews on the cover reinforce this). This means that, in my view, it becomes reasonable to criticise Wilson because he is not as good a writer as Collins, who is, after all, not himself a master in the class of (say) Dickens or Tolstoy, so a modest target compared with some that could have been chosen. For a "novel of suspense", The Dark Clue is unpardonably dull, for a biographical, historical novel, it is insufficiently focused on its subject.

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