October 1998

The right to bear armadillos

By William Boyd
Review by
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What is a, if not the, hallmark of a mystery novel? I've said it before, and I'll say it again: as Raymond Chandler is my witness, it's muddle. Sometimes, as with Chandler, it's nearly impenetrable muddle, and sometimes, as with Dorothy L. Sayers, it's logical muddle (oxymoronic though that may sound). But either way, when it's done well, as those two writers do it, it's satisfying muddle for the reader.

Does muddle sound like a pejorative comment, as if the author didn't know what he was doing? Why should it? Life's a muddle, an only partially successful attempt to impose order upon disorder. We can't really know what's going to happen next, and often we don't know the reasons for what happened before. Most often, there are none.

The perfect conditions, in other words, for mystery, as William Boyd has learned well. A writer who has turned his hand to everything from the comic (A Good Man in Africa) to the historical (The New Confessions), he now turns it, in Armadillo, to what amounts to a mystery.

The author lays out the question up front, in the novel's epigraph from W.V. Quine's From Stimulus to Science: There are surprises, and they are unsettling. How can we tell when we are right? We are faced with the problem of error. The person chiefly faced with this unsettling condition of life, this problem of error, is Lorimer Black, the armadillo of the title. Boyd also helpfully provides a dictionary definition of armadillo: little armed man. That's our Lorimer, so obsessed with the notion of protection that he collects ancient armor helmets. He carefully makes minute alterations in his dress and appearance because [t]hey functioned, in a way, as a form of invisible armor.

Except that it's not Lorimer; it's Milomre Blocj, born in England of Romanian Gypsies. (The 'j' is silent and there is a dot under the 'c,' Lorimer's father would constantly explain.) The difficulty of pronouncing his birth name is not the only reason Lorimer changed it. He is fascinated with name-changing. It seems to be another form of armor.

Protection from what? On one level, from his unpolished family, particularly his loutish brother, Slobodan. More essentially, going back to the issue raised in the epigraph, from uncertainty. It is his consciousness of uncertainty, we can say with some certainty, that makes it difficult for Lorimer to sleep.

Because Lorimer works in a business that ostensibly provides a measure of certainty in an uncertain world: insurance. Except he is what his boss calls the rogue element in insurance. He is a loss adjuster. He investigates large insurance claims for fraud. It pays him well. It's not the business that causes his uncertainty; he's in the business because of his affinity for uncertainty.

Lately, however, a more immediate form of uncertainty has entered his life, stemming from a fire at a hotel under construction. He successfully challenges the multimillion-pound claim on the grounds of arson and reaps a nice bonus for his efforts.

He also reaps a number of enemies from among those who stood to gain from the claim. Then things turn queer. Despite Lorimer's triumph, his boss, aptly named Hogg, begins to turn against him. His car is blow-torched, probably by a disgruntled insurance claimant. He is mugged, perhaps by the husband of an actress named Flavia he is besotted with, perhaps by the insurance claimant. Then, even queerer, those who had been outraged by the denial of their insurance claim are suddenly quite amiable, and Hogg acts aggressively suspicious of him. Is some sort of double-cross being worked here? Is Lorimer being set up? It grows increasingly unclear who is doing what to whom and why.

From a position of steady normality . . . he now found himself adrift in uncertainty and chaos, we are told. And, to a South African businessman who mysteriously enters, and further muddles, the picture, he remarks, "As I keep saying to people: I simply don't understand what's going on." Never fear, though, he figures it out. He also figures out a way to protect his scapegoat hide from those who apparently want to nail it to the jailhouse door.

It would be unfair to reveal more. After all, this novel, for all its stylishness, is at bottom a mystery with clues for each reader to work out. It's not too much to say, however, that Lorimer also gets the girl. Or so it would seem. There's always that element of uncertainty.


Roger Miller is a freelance writer in Janesville, Wisconsin.

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By William Boyd
ISBN 9780375402234

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