I have recently started – and scarcely less recently stopped – reading this book. Cornwell is revered among thriller writers. Kim Hill, if I recall correctly, is a fan. For starters, I suspected the title: ‘Scar’ and ‘Pet’ juxtaposed like that. Seemed facile.
By page 13 we have a protagonist talking to a Dr Thomas, gender unrevealed, but clearly a psychiatrist. The presence of a psychiatrist, particularly so early, worries me because psychiatrists in a thriller are often just a cheap trick, a lazy writers’ mechanism for creating a dilemma for a character. They also allow the writer to dodge the challenge of revealing a character’s motivation and proclivities through words and actions.
That alone would not have led me to snap the book shut at page 22 with a huff of dissatisfaction. I was just tired of trying to piece together the first three or so chapters by guesswork, which we have to do because they are missing. At least, that is how it reads. We are simply thrown into the action when it is already well under way. Person A is fuming about something Person B has done but we have not a clue what that is or why A is upset about it. And so forth. Eventually, of course, we will catch up, cotton on, find our bearings. What has been achieved? Nothing. And since not one character has, by page 22, captured my sympathy or even piqued my curiosity, the book is a gone coon.
Perhaps Cornwell is suffering by unconscious, unintended comparison with Evelyn Waugh, whose ‘Sword of Honour’ I have just finished. Waugh was a miracle worker. He describes almost nothing, or at least nothing physical. Characters go places, say things to each other, events occur, we meet new people, the books just roll on like life and yet somehow they reveal an extraordinary amount. They teach us, entertain us, and in the end we have the illusion of having almost become Guy Crouchback, we know him so well, pity him, admire him, love him. And is if that wasn’t enough we have experienced the English language having been put through its paces like champion show-jumper achieving a perfect round.
Will we ever see his like again?