Sunday, October 26, 2008

Seventy Two Virgins - what kind of novel would you expect Boris Johnston to write?

Cover of Boris Johnston's Seventy Two Virgins

Boris Johnston has (and nurtures) an image of being bumbling, eccentric, jolly, articulate yet not smooth talking, classically trained, able to mock himself, pretending to be the common man except from a privileged background. His appearances in the media vary from comedic moments in Have I Got News For You to unconventional statesman waving the flags at Olympic and Paralympic closing ceremonies.

I started writing this post about a month ago ... and perhaps Boris has thrown off some of his bumbling persona more recently, and shed his cultivated amateur politico status to join the professional ranks with his short but decisive conversation with Sir Ian Blair that led to a vacancy at the top of London's Metropolitan Police Service.

Seventy-Two Virgins is a comic novel penned by Johnston (his first fiction?) and set against the backdrop of an unravelling terrorist attack at Westminster. The American President is coming to Westminster Hall to address the assembled MPs and staff. But an ambulance has gone AWOL and is making its way towards the security cordon with an unusual team of dangerous men on board.

The story unfolds and the pages turn quickly as the British and American security teams suffer from bad timing, bad personnel and bad mistake after bad mistake as they begin to sense that something is about to go spectacularly wrong. It’s a farce without the forced gags, and a fun bedtime read.

The title’s reference to seventy-two virgins comes from the promised reward in paradise for the terrorists. Though the - perhaps controversial - issue of 72 raisins is raised. Issues of taste, tact and humour abound, with a little explosive toilet humour near the end. And did the reader ever expect a US Secret Service sharpshooter called Pickle to be a deadly assassin?

Johnston’s cleverness is on show throughout the book. He doesn’t actually (need to) identify the political parties and persuasions of any of the characters, and only takes pot shots at the French, American and bad guy stereotyped players.

Surprisingly readable fiction ... that provided this week’s word of the week: ratiocination. Boris’ vocabulary is impressive!

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