- Mr Cadmus, by Peter Ackroyd. Canongate, $24.99.
Peter Ackroyd is the author of 18 novels, notably Hawksmoor, Chatterton, and Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, 39 non-fiction books, including biographies of Dickens and Blake, and four volumes of poetry.
Now, comes this slim novel Mr Cadmus. It opens in a small Devon village, Little Camborne in 1981, a time when Ackroyd owned a house in Devon near Barnstaple, an area which he surprisingly found, "too noisy, and too dangerous . . . and the native populations aren't as rural and gentle as you'd imagine".
This viewpoint is reflected in Mr Cadmus, which starts out in EF Benson's Mapp and Lucia territory, but becomes an increasingly dark story.
Two unmarried cousins, Miss Millicent Swallow and Miss Maude Finch, wonder about the new resident who is buying the vacant cottage between their properties.
It turns out to be an Italian from the island of Caldera, Theodore Cadmus, arriving in a yellow car, wearing "green trousers and a scarlet sweater with a plaid scarf tied loosely around his neck".
Ackroyd says that he found his inspiration for the trio when he observed, on London's Shaftesbury Avenue, "two elderly ladies with this gentleman of Italian appearance with a curled moustache".
Millicent comments, "Even before he opened his mouth, I knew he was foreign", while Maud worries, "Oh dear. I hope he doesn't have any habits".
Despite Mr Cadmus having a parrot, Isolde, which utters four-letter obscenities and eating strange food, he soon charms both Maude and Millicent.
As gossip proliferates in the narrow-minded, parochial village Maude and Millicent show Mr Cadmus off to local residents and take him to church.
The relative calm of the village, however, is turned upside down by the vicar running off with the church treasures, an armed post office robbery and the sequential deaths of the surviving members of the World War II Little Camborne Regiment.
Ackroyd seems to be taking the reader into Midsummer Murders or Miss Marple territory, but then the tone changes as the victims seem to be linked to wartime atrocities in Caldera.
Millicent and Maude also have dark hidden pasts, which slowly emerge, and their relationship becomes increasingly frayed as they vie for Mr Cadmus's attention.
The narrative takes another abrupt switch when Mr Cadmus returns to the "sacred island" of Caldera where mythical purple birds, rare amethysts, volcanic eruptions and supernatural happenings are linked back to Little Camborne.
Ackroyd 's convoluted dénouement is a genre step too far.