I bring you a book by an author who has visited my blog before, although this one is pretty different. You know I like different… Oh, I kept thinking about Pete who blogs from Beetley now and whose London stories (and others) I enjoy so much. If you don’t know him, you can check his blog here.
The London Property Boy by Patrick Brigham
Michael Mostyne, a thirty-something developer and property dealer, has fallen foul of Great Britains 1970s economic recession. A property crash like no other, it foreshadows the end of a promising career, but it is also the end of his unhappy marriage to Lavender Mostyne. The tale of his painful struggle to get back on his feet, whilst dealing with the past and an acrimonious divorce, Mike Mostyne leaves his provincial home, moves to London and gets a job running a West London real estate agency. Through hard work, success soon turns to success and his life begins to change for the better. By manoeuvring around his bosses, with their narrow self-interest, his own desire for big money and a wish to be financially independent means he has to take huge risks.
London is not short of girls, and Mike Mostyne is rarely on his own. Christine, a West End PA and a good time girl, looks at him through a cloud of cannabis smoke. Sofie, a minor Dutch diplomat, disappears when Mike’s son Mark is mysteriously kidnapped by the IRA. And finally, there is Nadezhda Antova, who friends say is an Eastern European honey trap, but who he marries despite their warnings. From rags to riches, and with the next property crash waiting around the corner, will fate finally conspire to finish him off once again? Will he also find personal happiness with Nadezhda Antova, and why is MI5 so interested?
About the author
Patrick Brigham has lived in the Balkans for many years. Originally from London, where he was in the property business, he lived in the City until 1993 and then moved to Sofia. As Chief Editor of a magazine called the Sofia Western News, and the first English language magazine in ex-Communist Bulgaria, it introduced him to the intrigues of Eastern Europe, and a firm understanding of the people living there.
Now living in Northern Greece, Patrick has published many murder mystery novels as well as stand-alone literary fiction and a humorous play. Writing for the more thoughtful reader, Patrick Brigham says:–
“I have lived quite an eventful life, so much of what I write is based on fact. Most of my books concentrate on a particular subject, and The London Property Boy does just that and has quite a lot of me in it. We should never simply dwell on the past, but a colourful past is where much of our inspiration comes from.”
I received an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to read and review.
I read and reviewed Bringham’s Goddess of the Rainbow some time ago, and I was curious to read a new work by him, in this case a novel that seemed totally different in setting and subject matter. And that is indeed the case. This is not a choral book, and although there are quite a number of characters, the story centres around Mike Mostyne, and most of it takes place in London (although other parts of the UK also feature, and there are occasional trips to Bulgaria as well, and that connects it somewhat to the previous novel). The author’s biography confirmed my impression that the novel showed a deep and personal knowledge of the world of the property business in London in the 70s and 80s.
I don’t want to go into a lot of detail about the plot, as the description covers the gist of the main events. We follow Mike Mostyne, who is a property developer when we meet him at the beginning of the novel, through several decades of adventures that mirror what’s happening in London’s property market and the UK economy at large, from bust to boom and repeat. Although a lot of the novel is taken by his work and his efforts to rebuild his business and avoid bankruptcy, we also read about his personal life (although not in so much detail): his two marriages and the other women who cross (and some share, even if momentarily) his life, the relationship with his son, his attempts at looking after his mother and his fraught relationship with his sibling, his interaction with friends and associates, and also some more unusual goings-on (there’s some spying thrown in). Although this is narrated in a third-person omniscient voice (most of it from Mike’s point of view, but we also get some inside information about some of the other characters the protagonist could not be privy to [at least not at the time when the events were taking place], and in some occasions, we appear to be observing Mike as if from a distance), at times it feels as if it were a memoir, but rather than Mike writing it, it is as if he had told the story to somebody else who had gathered other information as well, and we get to read this more detailed account of events. And believe me, the events make for quite a good read.
Although some of the themes might be pretty standard and to be expected in a novel (I’ve mentioned some already: private life, family relationships, love, friendship, business), Mike goes through more than his fair share of disappointments, betrayals, misunderstandings, strange deals and connections, unusual characters, politics (both in the UK and in Bulgaria, which gives him an unusual insight and perspective into the transition from the communist regime to the new democracies of some of the Eastern Bloc countries), and secrets beyond those most people come across in a lifetime. People familiar with the London of the 1970s and 80s will feel quite at home in this novel, and those who know or are interested in the property business, especially as it was 40 to 50 years ago in London, will remember and/or learn a lot about how things were really like. Tricks of the trade, underhand deals, backstabbing and internal company politics, corruption, traffic of influences, legal and not-so-legal procedures… It’s an eye-opener for those of us without direct experience who have always felt curious about it.
Mike is the main character, and we get to know him fairly well, although, as I’ve mentioned, the way the story is told and the fact that there is plenty of telling rather than showing, means that this is not in a touchy-feely way. Even when he is distressed, there is no much time dedicated to his feelings, and the style of the storytelling seems to go hand in hand with the character, who tries not to dwell on bad things, who is eminently practical and prefers to get on with things and act rather than to gaze at his own navel, and who never gives up. We get glimpses of his relationship with his mother, his sister and his brother, his first wife (who is a pretty dislikeable character, at least in my opinion), his son (who sounds like a terrific boy, but we don’t hear about him very often), some of the other women he comes across, and some pretty colourful characters, like a Bulgarian spy/politician, and John Cunningham, who is a puzzle in his own right. Personally, I would have liked to learn more about some of them (I particularly like his mother, although we meet her at a bad time in her life), but, as I have mentioned, the style of writing reflects the character’s personality, and one gets the sense that whatever his true feelings or interests, he would be unlikely to delve on them or divulge them even to those closest to him.
I’ve mentioned the point of view of the novel; the language suits the character and the location perfectly; it is peppered with local British expressions (which I think many readers will enjoy) and popular references to the period, without excessive or flowery descriptions (but there are some memorable characterisations); and it flows quite well. It isn’t a page-turner in the usual sense, as even when events take a turn that appears risky or dangerous, there isn’t a quickening of the pace but there isn’t an excessive build-up of tension either. It is a less-is-more approach that I found quite refreshing, although it seems to go against the usual dictates of how to write a bestseller. This is a fascinating story, told without too many bells and whistles, in a style that allows the facts to speak for themselves. That does not mean there is a lack of reflection and insight, as there are comments and quotes that are so sharp and true that one is left nodding in amazement and agreement. And, unfortunately in many cases, some of them are as relevant now as they were at the time the story is set in. I highlighted a lot of the text, and I share a few examples here (but, as usual, I recommend readers to check the look-inside feature or get a sample before deciding if the style suits their taste):
It always surprised him how solicitors managed to remove their umbrella when it began to rain, and to charge heavy fees when the pressure was on, and how, even after years of loyalty, you became their victim in the end.
Mike reflects about his mother and her failing memory:
Perhaps her memory loss was closely connected to her loneliness, and recollecting the past only served to increase her feelings of isolation. Maybe that was the solution to loneliness: to simply forget.
Here Mike is talking to John Cunningham about a pretty peculiar Bulgarian character (yes, Bulgarians don’t come out of this novel particularly well, although they aren’t the only ones to suffer a harsh treatment, and the author seems to be talking from personal experience) who after the fall of the Eastern Bloc decides to become a candidate in the first democratic elections in his country:
‘What, from con man to respectable politician? I thought that was an oxymoron?’
‘It’s just like good old Dr Johnson said —“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”
The ending is open, and it promises further adventures (although I don’t know if there’s another book planned or not). That does not mean there is a cliff-hanger. Nothing like that. As I’ve said before, Mike is a man who never gives up and who’s always after a new project or challenge, so it’s not surprising he goes searching for the next thing.
This is a book for those who enjoy local atmosphere and fiction set in the recent past (the latter part of the XX century), particularly in the UK and London. It doesn’t easily fit into a genre (it is a fictionalised memoir with plenty of information about the property business, family and romantic relationships, and even elements of the spy novel), and it defies many of the expectations of the majority of novels published these days. If you want more of the same or love standard genre novels, don’t bother with this one. But if you’d like to check a story that reflects the period, has touches of humour, and is non-apologetically personal, give it a go. It’s likely to leave you eager for more.
Thanks to the author for his novel, thanks to all of you for reading, I hope 2021 has started on a good note for you (don’t we all need it!), and remember to comment, like, share, click, and especially keep safe, and keep reading!