Hu­mour helps sus­tain mis­sion to avert an old tragedy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mal­colm Forbes

Time and Time Again By Ben El­ton Ban­tam Press, 400pp, $32.99 HUGH “Guts” Stan­ton, a for­mer spe­cial forces sol­dier turned celebrity ad­ven­turer, is sum­moned to Cam­bridge Univer­sity on Christ­mas Eve 2024 and asked the fol­low­ing ques­tion by his for­mer his­tory pro­fes­sor, Sally McCluskey: ‘‘If you could change one thing in his­tory, if you had the op­por­tu­nity to go back into the past, to one place and one time and change one thing, where would you go?’’

After agree­ing that World War I was the cat­a­lyst that pre­cip­i­tated all 20th-cen­tury hor­ror, Stan­ton is trained by McCluskey and an elite clan­des­tine out­fit called the Or­der of Chronos, given ex­tra guid­ance from the writ­ing of Isaac New­ton, and sent back in time to 1914, ‘‘the year of true catas­tro­phe’’, to right ‘‘his­tory’s

Novem­ber 15-16, 2014 great­est sin­gle mis­take’’. His mis­sion: to pre­vent the as­sas­si­na­tion of Arch­duke Franz Fer­di­nand in Sara­jevo and to kill the Kaiser in Berlin. By ac­com­plish­ing both, McCluskey as­sures him, he will sin­gle-hand­edly avert ‘‘[t]he ter­ri­ble dic­ta­tors, the wars and the geno­cides and the star­va­tion to come’’ and save ‘‘[t]he Rus­sian princesses mur­dered in that aw­ful cel­lar with their poor jew­els sewn in their knick­ers’’.

Were this the pitch of a de­but nov­el­ist to a lit­er­ary agent or pub­lisher there is a high prob­a­bil­ity it would be met with howls of de­ri­sion. As it is the synop­sis for the lat­est novel by Ben El­ton, au­thor of 14 pre­vi­ous best­sellers and cowriter of ground­break­ing tele­vi­sion come­dies The Young Ones and Black­ad­der, we should as­sume it was wel­comed, praised and ea­gerly green­lighted.

El­ton’s nov­els gen­er­ally slot into one of two cat­e­gories: there are the comic satires that riff on or spoof off cur­rent trends, global is­sues and cul­tural phe­nom­ena — the fi­nan­cial cri­sis in Melt­down (2010), re­al­ity TV tal­ent shows in Chart Throb (2006) — and there are the more se­ri­ous, and in­fin­itely more sat­is­fy­ing, his­tor­i­cal nov­els such as Two Brothers (2012).

Time and Time Again is unique for hav­ing a foot firmly in both camps. Stan­ton is a loner, his wife and kids killed by a hit-and-run driver. He senses why he has been picked for the job: ‘‘ No ties. No life. No fu­ture.’’

But El­ton doesn’t al­low his time-trav­el­ling as­sas­sin to stay maudlin for long and rou­tinely hauls him out of his soul-search­ing funks by singing his praises. In do­ing so, an in­con­gru­ous frivolity taints the pro­ceed­ings. At one point Stan­ton is pre­sented as so fit, wealthy and im­pos­ing that “James Bond him­self would have been hard put to notch up any more cool points’’. Ber­nadette, love in­ter­est and stranger on a train, is a feisty Ir­ish red­head (nat­u­rally with ‘‘emer­ald eyes’’) who cham­pi­ons votes for women and in­de­pen­dence for Ire­land — only to lose her rough edges and her built-up cred­i­bil­ity by swoon­ing over our ir­re­sistible hero.

And then there is McCluskey, a tweedy old crone who one minute is be­wail­ing to­tal­i­tar­ian atroc­i­ties and hold­ing forth on Europe’s crum­bling em­pires and the next is call­ing Stan­ton ‘‘dev­il­ishly dishy’’ and dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing be­tween drum and bass and Hi-NRG trance mu­sic. Worse, her mad­cap ser­mon­is­ing sounds un­can­nily sim­i­lar to her cre­ator’s hy­per­ac­tive comic rants. She tells Stan­ton that Josephine de­spised Napoleon; how­ever, ‘‘If that old town bike had put as much ef­fort into ser­vic­ing Boney’s boner as she put into plea­sur­ing her nu­mer­ous other lovers he might have hung around screw­ing her in­stead of pranc­ing off to screw an en­tire con­ti­nent!’’

Yet as Stan­ton as­sumes his Aus­tralian cover iden­tity (‘‘Perth … the loneli­est city on earth’’) and goes about his his­tory-re­boot­ing business in pre-war Con­stantino­ple, Sara­jevo, Vi­enna and the mil­i­tary play­ground of im­pe­rial Berlin, it is hard not to get swept along by the novel’s mo­men­tum. El­ton throws in ev­ery thriller com­po­nent, from back­stab­bers and un­likely ac­com­plices to nu­mer­ous twists and turns, and there is

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