Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Last Best Friend - George Sims

I had plans for today, they involved me efficiently reading, writing, and knitting. Finishing all sorts of odd jobs, and generally getting stuff done, were high in the agenda. So far I've put some flowers in a vase, consumed most of a packet of biscuits, and done very little else - which is disappointing - although there's also something deliciously self indulgent about basically doing nothing on a week day.

By contrast 'the Last Best Friend' offers almost non stop action. Part of the British Library's classic thriller series, I hadn't heard of George Sims before, and probably never would have if he hadn't made it into an edition like this - which says a lot for the power of a book cover.

It's 1966, and antiquarian bookseller, Ned Balfour, is enjoying a mid life crisis with a girl half his age in Corsica when he gets a telegram from a good friend back in London saying he needs to speak to him about a terrible decision he has to make. Hours later Sam Weiss is dead, and a stunned Balfour is on his way home determined to make sense of what happened.

Initially it looks like Sam's fall from a tenth floor window was suicide, but Sam suffered terribly from vertigo and something doesn't quite add up - including that telegraph. When Ned starts asking questions amongst their friends the answers are inconclusive, until he's warned off by some heavies, at which point it's abundantly clear that something is very wrong.

The back blurb tells us that Sam was an art dealer and had survived Dachau, so I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that nazi art looting is involved, but it unexpectedly chimed with David Williams 'Murder in Advent' in making a reputation a very good reason for murder.

A wartime youth is catching up with a whole set of middle aged men in this book. Some, like Sam Weiss, are dealing with what happened to them, others - Balfour - are still coming to terms with how small a part they played, and yet others have different consequences to reconcile. The question is, how far would you go to protect what you have when you have a lot to lose, and what do you go when things start to spiral out of your control.

It's a decent page turner that sets interesting moral conundrums for the reader - what to make of Balfour is another one where Sims excels at maintaining a balance between sympathy for his flaws and exasperation with them. The real pleasure of this book for me though was in the details.

I love the details of high end luxury in 1966, what it's geography was, something of the moral compass of the times - but then it's always the details that get me. They're the things I relate to; the scent of mimosa, mentions of old German wine (I could almost smell the kerosene note of a good mature reisling) the name dropping of an expensive watch, the street names you recognise, all of those things make a book live in my imagination in another dimension altogether.


  1. These occasional thrillers from BL are much more my cup of tea than the classic crime. I've got the other Web one in my TBR somewhere. It sounds like these have a great feel for the time - fab!

  2. I love the classic crime series, it's always fun, but this has far more depth than anything I've read in the Crime series. In light of all the #metoo allegations the idea of your past coming back to bite you seems particularly topical as well. This one is very much rooted in its time (it would make great T.V. as well now I think of it) but the basic concept is timeless. I really liked it.