Boris Johnson is not the first MP to write a novel but his is certainly the first I have been tempted to read (sorry Miss Widdecombe but the idea of you writing romantic fiction is quite stomach churning). To tell the truth, "Seventy Two Virgins" was an impulse purchase on an occasion when I darted into the Oxfam bookstore to shelter from the rain. Although I have read and greatly enjoyed some of his political writings, I was initially unsure about Boris the novelist but after only a few pages I was hooked by his effortless and engaging style.
The story covers just a few hours on a day that the American President is in London to address Parliament. As usual on overseas visits, the President has brought with him his own team of security experts and nothing has been left to chance. As the President and his wife begin the journey from Windsor to Westminster in the heavily armoured Presidential limousine, Tory MP Roger Barlow is leaving his family home to cycle to Parliament to hear the President's speech. On the way he is preoccupied because he fears the papers are about to break a story that could be potentially very embarrassing for him, but that doesn't stop him from trying to step in to resolve a dispute between a traffic warden and some dark-skinned men over a clamped ambulance that is about to be towed away.
Meanwhile a sizeable crowd of anti-American protestors are gathering outside Parliament to greet the President and the security officers are having a tough time controlling one or two of them. Up on the roof of the Houses of Parliament is Jason Pickell, one the United States' top marksmen, and a young British armed officer who begins to worry about her colleague's mental state when he tells her about his experiences in Baghdad.
Having forgotten his pass, Roger has to wait at the gates until his research assistant comes to help and while he is waiting he spots the ambulance again making its way inside the security cordon. But Roger is so concerned with his own problems that he shrugs off his doubts about the vehicle and tries to chum up to a reporter whom he hopes will tell him if his name features in that day's news-list.
By the time a few crucial pieces of information have got to the security services, the ambulance is empty and the President is about to begin his speech. Who was in the ambulance? Where are they now? And will the battling British and American agents be able to put aside their differences to save the day?
Most simply described, this is a fast moving thriller that is written in such a way to give it one or two moments of farce. I'm not sure that many authors could pull off such a feat, after all the idea of Islamic terrorists blowing up the Houses of Parliament is no laughing matter, but there are flashes of authors such as Ben Elton and, especially, Tom Sharpe here which create not only plenty of wry smiles but one or two belly laughs into the bargain. The idea of Islamic fundamentalists coming to the UK to study at the "University of Llangollen" made me chuckle every time this fictional institution was mentioned.
The main problem lies with the fact that it's not what you would expect from Boris Johnson and this makes you keep thinking that something ludicrously ridiculous and quite absurd is about to happen at any moment. Johnson's own parliamentary experience gives an air of authenticity about the whole thing which is vital because as you read you can't help hearing his distinctive persona and feeling that there is a punch-line on the way. That said, Boris Johnson's humour and general manner is very much in evidence.
The first half of the story is a little laboured and repetitive with lots of changes of perspective in the narration. These changes appear as new paragraphs in the same chapter and as a result it sometimes takes a moment or two to re-adjust to the new narration, even to work out who the story is now focused on. The second half moves along at a brisker pace which works well until the hurried but satisfying conclusion.
The real success of this novel is in the characterisation; it may be a little stereotypical at times but Johnson should be praised for the effortless way he manages to give a rounded portrait of each character in a very economic style. The central characters have more depth but there is necessarily a fairly large cast and I loved the way Johnson managed to accommodate a diverse range of the characters in Parliament. Is Roger Barlow Johnson's depiction of himself? I'd love to think so and when I was reading about Roger's worries about his secrets being revealed in the press I couldn't help recalling the time when Johnson's response to allegations of an extra-marital dalliance referred to "an inverted pyramid of piffle".
There is plenty of subtle (and at times not so subtle) political observation with support for cyclists (Boris is a keen cyclist, even if he often flouts the rules of the road), a few digs at the Yanks (the scene where the American First Lady wonders whether have a "By Presidential Appointment" logo can be added to the packaging of Pop Tarts is hilarious) and a hefty crack at the French contingent.
It does become quite farcical and unlikely at times but it's not every author that could write about such a serious subject matter in such an entertaining way and Boris Johnson does a fine job. As Mayor of London he sucks but, boy, does he write a decent novel!