All Quiet on the Orient Express (Flamingo, 1999) is the second novel from the pen of Magnus Mills. Another dark, comic cautionary tale, it picks up the reins from The Restraint of Beasts, and takes off with them all over again. And although there's a
sense that this is more of the same, an outsider treading water, trying to stay afloat but in the process
moving ever further from the shore, there's a gentler touch to this story than the Machiavellian schemes found
in The Restraint of Beasts.
The book's narrator is coming to the end of a brief camping trip in Cumbria, as the summer too draws to a
close. By the end of the first few pages he's the last survivor of the holiday season. Everyone else has returned
home to pursue their real lives once more. And he'll be off himself soon - he has a long-planned trip to the East to be getting on with.
But first there's the matter of payment for the few extra days he'll be camping in Tommy Parker's field...
Parker suggests that rather than pay him, he repaints his gate. Since he's going to be staying a few days
anyway, he might as well make himself useful. In return he can stay rent free while he gets the work done.
And he might as well give him his soul while he's at it. From that moment on, events seem to run slightly
beyond our hero's control. He completes the gate, but not without mishap. His continued presence brings more
work, which in turn brings more trouble, and more work. And so on, spiralling. He joins the pub darts team but
somehow manages to miss a fixture, and before long there's more work to be done, and try as he might, he can't
escape, trapped by the occasional moments of kindness from the village folk, and his own sense of propriety. He
runs up tabs at the pub, and at the local shop, and learning that hard cash is not as prized in this locale as
hard graft, which is all very well for the likes of Tommy Parker, master of the ground he owns and the assets
he constantly trades, but not so good when you've gradually let yourself become one of those assets. As the
"I'd inadvertently become his servant."
The locals aren't always overly helpful, although they try to be. At least they appear to. The eccentric
order of their world, natural to them, is gradually disturbed by the presence of the outsider. And gradually,
chaotically, the surface of their lives unravels, too.
Although occasionally a lighter piece than its predecessor, the loneliness of the single protagonist gives the
story a more claustrophobic edge, with the comedy (again beautifully constructed) coming from the characteristics
and caricatures in the cast of strange strangers going about their strange business (why does Brian Jones wear a paper crown every day? and why is the local shop owner quite so obtuse about his stock? and why can't he
just get hold of some baked beans?), just trying to get on with things.
There's a touch less malice at play this time,
but the corruption that power brings, the control it offers, and the exploitation of weakness, are again finely, painfully, illustrated.
Mills perhaps draws his point too much towards the end, with the arrival of a rival; the antithesis of the
narrator. Brash, arrogant, he gets his way and then gets away. That aside, however, All Quiet on the Orient Express is a delight, as
beautifully crafted as The Restraint of Beasts, and just as worthy of a read. And a few re-reads too.