Boxer Beetle by Ned Beauman (Shane's book 23, 2010)

A couple of months ago I took author Ned Beauman to task for some pompous, though possibly satirical, remarks about writers who use Twitter. Beauman's mother, Nicola, runs Persephone Books, and I suggested on Twitter, rather sarcastically, that his might have helped 25-year-old Ned get his book deal. Ned got in touch, offering to send a copy of the book to prove that he had got his deal on merit. [amtap book:isbn=0340998393]

I've no idea whether Beauman's mother and her contacts helped him get a deal. For all I know, Ned submitted his manuscript anonymously and nobody involved knew who they were signing. What I can say is that his debut novel is perfectly decent. It's flawed but not bad.

One strand of the book, set in the present day, involves Kevin, who suffers from trimethylaminuria, a metabolic disorder that causes him to smell of fish. Driven to solitude by his condition, he spends his time online in forums for collectors of Nazi memorabilia, whose company he prefers to that of those in the trimethylaminuria forums. Kevin occasionally works for Grublock, a property developer who also collects Nazi memorabilia. Sent by Grublock to see a private investigator, Kevin finds the man dead and is plunged into a murder investigation.

The second strand of the novel, set in the 1930s, centres on Philip Erskine, an entomologist with a taste for eugenics and fascism. He's also a repressed homosexual, as fictional fascists so often seem to be. From Max Aue in The Kindly Ones to Lt Gruber in Allo Allo, one never has to look far to find a gay Nazi. I've no idea why writers do this but it's in danger of becoming a cliche.

Anyway, Erskine takes an interest, professionally and personally, in Seth 'Sinner' Roach, a boxer and a remarkable physical specimen. He's small but powerful, much like one of Erskine's beetles. He's also Jewish, so the fascist, in addition to being gay, has also fallen for a Jew. What extraordinary bad luck.

Erskine's eugenics experiments hold the key to Kevin's murder mystery and Beauman gradually draws the two strands together. It's a fairly satisfying read and one that moves along at a decent pace. However, Beauman tries too hard to lift this above the level of a conventional thriller, which is what it is. Far too much is packed in and it often feels like Beauman is simply dumping onto the page excerpts from his wide-ranging research notes.

He also overcooks a lot of his prose, working in deliberately outlandish metaphors that jar with the otherwise straightforward writing and, to me at least, feel forced. However, I've read a couple of reviews of this book that have praised exactly that technique so perhaps it's just me.