A 92-year-old Nobel Prize winner who once cracked the secrets of the atom, and who might have other secrets to reveal. A crude sect of pseudo-Christian anchorites, which the venerable man of science has joined for who knows what reason. A forbiddingly remote isle in the Hebrides, where followers of the sect—including the scientist, Sir Francis Francis—are building a world apart from the “Babylon” that is modern Great Britain. This quirky thriller rises upon the foundation of those elements, and at first it holds a lot of promise. Superintendent James Pibble of Scotland Yard, traveling to that island on what turns out to be a busman’s holiday, aims to add a few missing pieces to the tragic story of his long-dead father, who had served as an assistant to Sir Francis a half-century earlier. Instead of finding ready answers to his filial inquiry, however, Pibble encounters a difficult old man who insists on taunting him and on maligning the memory of his father. Pibble also discovers a nest of intrigue among the crew of mad monks who surround Sir Francis, and before long he spots an apparent murder in progress. There’s no real mystery as to the culprit. (The monks all bear names such as Hope and Tolerance, so distinguishing between would-be suspects would be a hopeless task in any event.) What Dickinson offers, in place of mystery, is a harrowing, half-comic tale of rescue and escape
The promise of the book proves to be hollow, unfortunately. And that’s because the book itself is all too full: too full of material imported from several different genres (there’s adventure of the Boy’s Own sort, and horror in the Island of Dr. Moreau tradition, and working-class social realism of the “kitchen sink” variety, and a dollop of detection as well), and too full of dense, thorny prose. Dickinson tends to write in an arty and elliptical style, and while that style definitely has its charms—he tosses off arresting, poetic phrases left and right—it doesn’t suit the thriller form. The language gets in the way of the action; in some passages, it’s hard to discern what’s actually happening amid the baroque manner of its telling. A good novel yearns to break free of this literary jumble, but it never gets off the island where Dickinson has marooned it.