The Roses of Picardie by Simon Raven (1979) ends with this notation on the final page of the last chapter:
Deal... Corfu... Venice... Cannes... Athens... Rome... Monte Carlo... Dieppe.
It recalls the little "check-in" at the end of James Joyce's novel Ulysses:
I doubt Raven is mocking Joyce. Raven's list, as opposed to Joyce's, might be filed under that old-fashioned heading: Fleshpots of Europe. Well, perhaps except for Deal.
The Roses of Picardie is a cross-Europe tour-de-force of incredible narrative inventiveness and finesse. It glories in its own erudition and complication, which is never confusing or abstract.
The "roses" are a set of cursed rubies. Stolen from a "Jew of Antioch" during the Crusades, they spell doom to each subsequent possessor. The deaths are gruesome, and Raven tosses them off with great aplomb almost as afterthoughts.
(Readers of M.R. James will be delighted to find out the roses spelled doom for many generations in the bloodline of Bertrand of Comminges. The Cathedral of
St Bertrand de Comminges gets a visit from Raven's treasure hunters, and one gets a very nasty surprise.)
One of the strengths of The Roses of Picardie, like Doctors Wear Scarlet, is the way in which characters are written against stereotype. A married couple with an eccentric (to be kind) relationship learn to trust each other and find in their marriage an insoluble strength. A disgraced and drunken scientist, an expert on rats, finds himself in the right place at the right time, and rises to the occasion.
Simon Raven coordinates three hundred pages of travel and adventure for half a dozen characters before bringing them all together as a team. It's an amazing display of authorial skill.
(Screenshots below will give you an indication of Raven's aesthetic fireworks display.)
In the last six months even the largely inadequate selection of Simon Raven books in epub and Kindle digital formats have vanished. This is a disgrace.
I hope an enterprising publisher realizes soon that Raven will have a ready audience among readers of Waugh, Wodehouse, Powell, Kersh, Durrell, and Gore Vidal.
10 March 2018