Christmas makes you buy.
It’s not the point of Christmas of course, and at its best present giving is terribly thoughtful, getting the perfect meaningful something for a loved one. But the system, the old dog, is trying to lever pounds out of your sweating palms, waving a succession of present guides in front of you. Brora cashmere ear muffs, they murmur. Asprey leather driving gloves. Dunhill chess set.
These sort of object-focussed desires are second nature to the protagonists of Mark Lawson’s The Deaths – a sharp satire of the shallow moneyed middle classes. Lawson paints a picture realistically thick with the stuff that makes up a rabidly consumerist lifestyle. The narrative weaves the lives of four couples self-dubbed “The Eight,” with privileged lives, high self-regard and high self-obsession with the story of the discovery of a number of deaths at the homes of one of them.
The Eight are obsessed with lifestyle and with distinguishing themselves from the masses. Lawson’s ability to bring this mindset and world to life is the real strength of the novel. True, the brand and product detail means that at times it reads like a breathless lifestyle feature in a glossy magazine – “Emmeline looks tired and vulnerable, curled up on the sofa in a black cashmere Zadig & Voltaire, sipping her acai and yuzu infusion” sort of thing. But that’s all enjoyable to read and is appropriate given the characters’ obsession with this conspicuous consumption. (Incidentally this book is a rare example of a novel with protagonists around the age of 50, as moaned about in this earlier post.)
The murders themselves are rather a let down. There is a needlessly gradual uncovering of exactly who died and what happened, but where you’re hoping for this thread to throw some real sharpness onto the rest of the story, it falls short. The novel fails to make a real point or raise any interesting questions in the mind of the reader. The implied message is that money is slightly disgusting, as there’s little sympathy for the majority of the characters who are shown as shallow and tawdry – but there’s undeniable pleasure taken in the detailed depictions of the trappings of wealth. In general, Lawson’s enemy seems to be the pressure to keep up with one’s peers, but this is not taken beyond the financial into a psychological exploration which could have become really interesting.
This shortcoming prevents the novel from aspiring to great literature, but doesn’t get in the way of the easy reading pleasure. It may be not much deeper than the characters it depicts, but it hits the bullseye of popular fiction with some intelligence and good quality writing. A word of caution, though. As A Little Blog of Books notes in this post, its very contemporary nature means it’s unlikely to age very well at all – so if you’re keen, get reading.