I haven't read any Toby Litt before, though I've meant to. He has been working his way through the alphabet with his book titles, starting with the short story collection Adventures in Capitalism and reaching K with his latest, King Death. [amtap book:isbn=0141039728]
It's another literary thriller, something that has become an accidental theme of my reading this year. King Death opens with a couple, Kumiko and Skelton, who are on an early morning train into London when they see a human heart, apparently thrown from their train, land on the roof of Borough Market. At the next stop, Kumiko rushes to investigate and Skelton reluctantly follows.Kumiko was already close to ending the relationship and uses the mystery as her opportunity to strike out on her own. The more passive Skelton carries out his own investigations in a bid to win her back. Thus, in a piece of slightly cumbersome symbolism, each is trying to solve the mystery of the heart.
The search leads them to medical students at Guy's hospital. Kumiko moves into a student house, while Skelton gets himself a job as a hospital porter. They narrate alternate chapters and Litt has a lot of fun juxtaposing their impressions of events, particularly Skelton's frequent misreadings of Kumiko. In the opening chapter, for example, Kumiko says that "it was already over between us", while Skelton is under the impression that they are sitting "in a kind of exhausted but not uncontented silence".
King Death is an odd mix of contemporary romance and gothic thriller. It's enjoyable but only if you can overlook a few implausible events. For example, it's hard to believe that anyone, even someone with medical training, would recognise with certainty a human heart glimpsed for a moment from the window of a moving train. Likewise, it's an extraordinary turn of luck that sees both Skelton and Kumiko separately infiltrate the inner workings of Guy's.
And then there's the book's conclusion which, though tense and clever, brings to a head a completely different mystery to the one that kicked off the book. Again, it's a little hard to believe that the pair could solve both mysteries. In fact, it's not entirely clear why Litt needed two mysteries in the first place.
The two leads are charismatic enough, though the supporting cast is somewhat interchangeable. I had trouble working out exactly who was responsible for the stolen heart because I couldn't tell the suspects apart.
It's all a little silly but it zips along at a good pace. I didn't dislike it, despite the sloppy plot.