In the aftermath of World War I, Michael Pinfold a disillusioned ex-soldier tries to rescue his failing family wine business on the island of Madeira. In a villa in the hills the exiled Austrian Emperor lives in fear of assassination by Hungarian killers, while in Reid’s Hotel, a well-known lady crime novelist is stranded on her way to South Africa and George Bernard Shaw whiles away his days corresponding with his friends, writing a one act play and learning to tango with the hotel manager’s spouse.
A stranger, Robinson, is found murdered and Michael finds himself manipulated into investigating the crime by his sinister best friend, Johnny Cardozo, the local police chief, with whose wife he is pursuing an arid love affair; manipulated, too, by Father Flaherty, a priest with dubious political interests, and by his own eccentric parent, who claims to have been part of a comedy duo that once entertained the Kaiser with Jewish jokes. Will Michael find love? Will the Emperor escape his would-be killers? Will any of the characters learn the true meaning of the tango?
Received from Librarything‘s April 2013 Early Reviewers batch
Michael Pinfold has returned to Madeira after an unsuccessful trip to England to sell some of his wins stock. It’s post WWI, Pinfold is an ex-soldier and the family business is on it’s last legs. His father is a flamboyant old stage entertainer, who spends most of his time in bed, being looked after by a very tolerant Goan man-servant.
On the boat back to Maderia, Pinfold falls in with two other ex-soldiers, and being rather British finds it difficult to extract himself from the two, even though none of them have much money between them. Also on the boat is a Mrs Christie, a writer of “children’s stories” (she’s rumoured to have written a novel called “Mysterious Fairy Styles” – better known as The Mysterious Affair at Styles). Staying at one of the posher hotels on the island is one George Bernard Shaw, who in an attempt at a little privacy, has taken to introducing himself as Sonny, and has started taking Tango lessons. Meanwhile there is correspondence between GBS and various writers and fans, and a short play GBS has written at the request of one of his publishers
Meanwhile, an Englishman called Robinson is found dead, with a knife wound in the back. He is believed to have just come off the boat with the others, and only one passenger seems to know who he is. One of Michael’s friends, Johnny, who introduces himself as “a diplomat” but who everyone suspects to be secret service, is back in Madeira to look after Emperor Karl (the next in line to ArchDuke Ferdinand) is the one to pull Michael into the investigations.
Slightly farcical, in that much of what happens is based on gossip and assumptions and some outright lies. People do not accept that Michael does not know Robinson basing much on what is reported in the paper – the journalist is known to Michael to be an outright liar. Meanwhile, Michael is manipulated by Circumstance, Johnny, and a host of other characters to become involved in the investigation of Robinson’s death and the attempted kidnapping of the Emperor off the island. The story ends sharply, with plenty of loose ends left behind of what happened to many of the characters
Michael is also somewhat of a unreliable narrator. He is sleeping with Johnny’s wife (getting her pregnant in the process), he steals from all and sundry, but generally returns all but the money he steals to the original owner. More than one person dies in the story, some he has known for years, but is somewhat emotionally disconnected from the deaths. There is plenty of references to the Tango and how some of the characters dance it. The last part of the play, which finished the book, went on too long, and I have to admit I skimmed it. I possibly missed a couple of metaphor, but to be honest, it was beginning to drag by this point and I lost interest.