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Before an envelope is opened, you don’t know what’s in it, and you aren’t committed to a course of action. So far as the contents of the envelope go, you’re an innocent. The contents may be true, false, incomplete, irrelevant, or stone-cold proof of wrongful intent. But whatever they are, they aren’t yet inside your head. They aren’t bothering you. They don’t affect your sleep, your self-perception, or your faith in the universe. But once the envelope is opened, the contents zap into your brain, where you have to deal with them.

Yesterday afternoon I was enjoying a nice glass of wine at a Christmas party and having a conversation with a very informative fellow on a topic I never would have suspected would be of interest to me. Namely insurance.

Hurm. Road not taken and all that.

Still there was something intriguing in how much day-to-day activities  need to be protected against potential risk. Furthermore, insurance covers everything from corporate espionage to fraud, from white-collar criminals to terrorists. Fascinating stuff. Then I picked up this book by Mr Colin Harrison and oo look, synchronicity kicks in once again.

George Young is our hero, an insurance lawyer happily settled into a middle-class existence paid for by years working in the trenches of New York corporate law. He enjoys a loving relationship with his wife Carol, is a proud father to his daughter and likes going to Yankees games. He knows that in the greater scheme of things he was never especially successful, but in his time working for the firm Patton, Corbett & Strode he has earned a reputation for being a man who got the job down. He is also thankful for managing to survive the Global Financial Crisis relatively unscathed.

It was Wilson Corbett who hired him for the firm and gave him the opportunity to make something of himself. Now his widow has requested that Young do one last favour for his former mentor. She is an old lady doubly haunted by the loss of her husband and the recent death of their son Roger, killed in a freak traffic accident moments after leaving a bar. She requests that Young find out what her troubled son was thinking about in the last few days of his death. Both the police and a private investigator named James Hicks have failed to give her any sense of resolution for the tragedy. So she has turned to Young, for isn’t he a man who can get results?

What he discovers is a case far less simple than it first appears. It emerges that Roger, broken by divorce and his failure to live up to the business reputation of his father, may have been involved in something quite serious. There are hints of fraud, an unusual relationship with a Czech hand model and even Hicks tries to convince Young not to continue with the case.  Even his wife questions the extent to which he is willing to pursue the last wishes of a dying woman. What exactly is he getting involved in?

Folks I have a very simple system for reviewing these books. I have a collection of book-marks that I have amassed over the months. Every time I find a turn of phrase I enjoy, or an interesting passage, I insert one of the book-marks to spur on my review later.

This afternoon I ran out of book-marks.

Harrison’s writing is lean, smart and very wry. George and Carol are a great couple and it is a huge relief to read about an investigation where the male protagonist does not discard wife and family for some ephemeral goal. In fact Carol spurs on the plot at several points, whereupon Harrison notes ‘Now and then I am reminded that my wife is smarter than I am.’

Young is also a refreshingly self-aware investigator, anticipating the usual pitfalls of femme fatals and dangerous criminal plots without any of the insistent gullibility of some detective fiction protagonists. The story itself is tautly and intelligently told, with no John Grisham-esque fat on the bone. It is no surprise to discover that this book was originally published in serial form in the New York Times.

This is smart and intriguing fare from a genre that insists on mystery, but often delivers formulaic plotting. Recommended.

‘What I’m thinking is: here I am, lying under a haystack…The tiny little place I occupy is so small in relation to the rest of space where I am not and where it’s none of my business; and the amount of time which I’ll succeed in living is so insignificant by comparison with the eternity where I haven’t been and never will be…And yet in this atom, in this mathematical point, the blood circulates, the brain works and even desires something as well…What sheer ugliness! What sheer nonsense!’.

I like Russians. Oh sure, if you dig into the classics every character has triple-barrel names, there’s talk of serfs and agriculture the entire time (that bloody neverending chapter in Anna Karenina for one), and half the dialogue is in French. I still enjoy reading Russian novels though, both modern and classic, because they have a consistent dry sense of humour. Whether the author is Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Mikhail Bulgakov, Victor Pelevin, the tone is similar, to my mind at least. That’s what surprised me the most about this tale of misunderstandings between the young and the old, the regrets that crowd the space between parents and their children. It was pretty funny, in a sort of ‘a-ha’, way.

Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov is a widower, an unsuccessful landowner and a proud father. The novel begins with him impatiently for his son’s return from St. Petersburg. The year is 1859. Nikolai Petrovich is an old man, given to daydreaming and poetry. He lives with his brother Pavel, always the more outgoing of the two, a handsome military officer with a one-time promising career, who threw it all away over a doomed love affair. They are both trapped by their pasts, country aristocrats with little understanding of how to manage the serfs who live on their lands.

Arkady, his son, arrives back from graduation with his charismatic friend Bazarov in tow. The two young men converse frequently about exciting new ideas. Poor Nikolai Petrovich is left behind by their discussions. Bazarov in particular disturbs the balance of the house. His manner towards all aristocrats is contemptuous and snide. He declares that all art is nonsense, only what we can determine through science is of value. Arkady is enthralled by his commanding friend, echoing his opinions on most everything. Over dinner the young men send Pavel into a rage when they announce that they are nihilists. All the old values must be swept away, society is corrupt and only proper reform will solve the problems of modern life. This ideological gulf between the two generations increases the antagonism between the four men and over time each of them finds their certainties tested.

As I have said, I was surprised at how funny this book can be. Pavel has a particularly wicked tongue and his debates with Bazarov are extremely witty – However, we are unable to understand one another. I, at least, have the honour not to understand you.’ The nihilist’s young ward in training Arkady is naieve and easily shocked by his friend’s cynicism, although he tries to hide it. Bazarov in particular is contemptuous of intellectual women. For all his talk of ‘reform’, and criticizing of old values, he is peculiarly conceited in many ways. His nihilism is an extravagantly inverted form of egotism. Only provable scientific theories are of value and as he intends to become a doctor, he reduces everything in life to biological drives, pronouncing himself an enemy of romance. Which makes it all the more amusing when he falls in love. Bewildered and angry at these strange emotions, he becomes curiously sympathetic, despite his abrasiveness. Apparently Turgenev was viciously attacked by members of both the political Left and Right for his caricature of nihilistic views. Personally I think Bazarov is a well realized character who happens to claim to be a nihilist, but is in fact simply very confused by life.

My edition of Fathers and Sons was translated by Richard Freeborn. He choice of phrasing distracted me occasionally from the flow of the novel’s language. Bazarov often says ‘mate’ in an almost contemporary fashion and the dialogue of the serfs appears to be imported from Yorkshire. Still the warmth and empathy Turgenev feels for Arkady and his father is retained.

It’s a simple tale, one that repeats itself with every generation. I enjoyed it very much.

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