‘Like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay bumped into Cloud Atlas somewhere in the Garden of Forking Paths’ – The House of Rumour by Jake Arnott

horjaIn The House of Rumour’s prologue, the narrator, Larry Zagorski, summarises the subsequent plot, telling of how he got his hands on a top-secret file from the British Ministry of Defence. Zagorski, a science fiction writer, then goes on to provide a succinct, and accurate, description of the novel:

‘no clear linear narrative, merely quanta of information, free particles that fire off each other. Wonderful stuff, with cults and charismatic rocket scientists, and an unlikely conspiracy known as Operation Mistletoe … tales that split and converge. A whole arcana of speculation…’

The secret file relates to the flight Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess took in 1941 when he left Nazi Germany and landed in Scotland. It has been suggested (in the novel and in real life) that Hess was lured to Britain by Allied intelligence services, and that the plan was inspired by the futuristic novel, Swastika Night, written in 1937 by Katharine Burdekin. As a roman à clef, The House of Rumour plays with this idea that fact and fiction, past and future, are more like close relatives than distant opposites.

It is the young naval commander, Ian Fleming, who, in the early years of World War II, researches a plan, known as Operation Mistletoe, to bring Hess to Britain (some of the information he gathered, it is suggested, ended up later in his James Bond novels). The House of Rumour dips into the lives of those involved in the conspiracy – directly and indirectly – and many of those who later came into contact with the file, tracing it all the way through history to Zagorski in 2011.

Each chapter is named after a Tarot card, and each has a different narrator, some of whom return more than once to add another ‘quantum’ to the story. The narrative style of the chapters varies; with first, second and third person voices, journal entries, novel extracts and newspaper cuttings. The shifting perspectives never feels tricksy or experimental, however, as Arnott applies the technique most appropriate to the character in question. The genderless, second person ‘you’ fits perfectly, for example, with the transsexual musician. It doesn’t seem odd either when a later narrator, an aspiring author and film director, provides a brief overview of another book, Nightmare Alley (an actual novel and film) that, again, gives an apt summary of The House of Rumour:

‘Using the Major Arcana as a structure looks like a gimmick at first but in the end the Tarot bestows an ominous gravity on the narrative. The novel seems to suggest that human degradation is the ultimate spiritual journey.’

In this case, Jake Arnott has L Ron Hubbard basing his early ideas for Scientology on Aleister Crowley’s The Book of Lies. There is a B movie star dying in the People’s Temple suicide pact of 1978, and a British intelligence officer recalled to investigate the possible murder of Hess in Spandau Prison. The whole collection of diverse stories and styles never feels random or unrelated. They are all connected and relevant, and always rigidly in line with the novel’s greater themes. All together it’s like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay bumped into Cloud Atlas somewhere in the Garden of Forking Paths.

Any Cop?: The House of Rumour examines decades of history, both real and imagined, through characters both fictional and actual. It may not have a ‘clear linear narrative’ and might look ‘like a gimmick at first’ but this novel is a great read. Every chapter has a unique and interesting story, and Arnott carefully crafts each one to create an original, entertaining and compelling whole.

Jim Dempsey


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