Described in Maclean’s magazine as “a crime novel with a solid and civilized touch and a depth of insight into character reminiscent of British mystery writer P.D. James,” Jonathan Webb’s novel, Pluck, examines the roots of friendship and the limits of loyalty in a taut novel set in late-twentieth-century England.
The book was chosen as co-winner, together with David Kendall’s Lazaro, of the Seal First Novel Award. Jack McClelland, president of McClelland & Stewart and inventor of the prize, was famous for the publicity stunts he used to launch M&S publications. He had the two authors stage a mock punch-up for the prize. David Kendall tentatively suggested to Webb that they might make things more interesting by throwing a real punch or two – but, in the event, neither man did. The publicity shot still found its way into at least a couple of newspapers. Webb, incidentally, is the one with the beard; Jack McClelland is the referee. (See photograph below.)
The story: when the dissolute playboy, John Pluck, in an uncontrollable rage murders his wife, Lucy, he turns to the tight circle of friends he went to school with for help.They all have achieved a degree of success in their lives; Red Bannerman, the politician; Ferdinand Hands, the slightly shady businessman; Jack Carrington, the writer; Sam Hawkins, the journalist; and Tim Monkman, some kind of spy. Only Pluck, whose powerful and irrepressible personality dominated their society in their youth, was a kind of failure: a dissolute and careless playboy to whom they remained irresistibly drawn. When he calls on them for assistance, they answer for all kinds of reasons. Love and nostalgia count for a lot. The tacit understanding that – perhaps – they have it in their power to save him, also plays a part.
They spirit him away to Mexico where he remains for a time. It seems that they might just get away with it…
The Reviews: Good, Bad and Supercilious
The reviews were mixed but mainly positive. Maclean’s magazine called Pluck “a crime novel with a solid and civilized touch and a depth of insight into character reminiscent of British mystery writer P.D. James.”
Judith Fitzgerald, writing in the Kingston Whig-Standard weekend magazine wrote: “A thrilling story of guilt, lust and complicity gone awry… Perfectly paced and sublimely written. Webb’s attention to detail and characterization is breathtakingly accurate… Pluck is near-flawless fiction, a first novel that succeeds without qualification.”
Ken Adachi, writing in the Toronto Star, wasn’t quite so sure: “One can’t help being intrigued by the antagonists and the complexity of their uneasy relationships. Webb has quite a lot to say about the peculiarities and tensions of male bonding, and his book has much more flair and insight than Kendall’s. But the novel eventually settles down to a chess game of flight and pursuit, from the streets of London and New York to Mexico, with the plot usurped by the silly (if agreeable) love affair between an investigative journalist and the daughter of one of the conspirators. The consummation of their love takes three pages of feverish prose…”
(Fortunately, perhaps, the Bad Sex Award had not yet been invented at the time.)
Anne Montagnes in the Toronto Globe and Mail offered faint praise in comparing Pluck and Lazaro: “Pluck is the more thrilling of these two because of its witty, albeit soulless, impersonation of John LeCarre.” (As co-winners of the prize, it was perhaps inevitable that the two books were often reviewed together and often compared, to the detriment of one or other.)
Burt Howard was more generous in the Ottawa Citizen: “[Webb's] spider-web of a crime story credibly explores the dark territory of the human heart already mapped by Graham Greene and earlier novelists of the Conrad and Dostoevsky persuasion…. As he exposes the tangled loyalties and personalities that enable the group to do what none as an individual would dare, Webb reaches the human mysteries and interactions that only a novelist can communicate.”
Norman Sigurdson, writing in the Winnipeg Free Press, was less charitable: “Despite a rather creaky plot, Pluck does have some good moments, but they are few and far between. Some of the characters are fascinating, but most do no more than quietly play out their allotted roles…. The tone of the book is a cool and sophisticated detachment, but the characterizations cannot always sustain that atmosphere of irony. Mr. Webb too often tells when he should show.”
A stronger endorsement, finally, from Alan Twigg in the Vancouver Province: “Jonathan Webb’s slow and intelligent Pluck deserves the Seal prize on its own…. Pluck is a careful and original exploration of how loyalty and friendship are different habits. The characterizations and intrigue are credible…. Pluck, in comparison with… Lazaro, is sublime.”