Jake Arnott: The Devil's Paintbrush (3 stars)

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Jake Arnott

Moving far away from his London-centric crime tales, Jake Arnott has plundered a chance and highly unlikely meeting between two figures from Britain’s colonial past. The Black Isle-born Hector Macdonald, aka Fighting Mac, was a proud general who fought in Sudan and the Boer War, eventually committing suicide when word got out of his homosexuality. Aleister Crowley, aka The Beast of Boleskine, was the hedonist and bisexual who gained notoriety for his satanic ways, later dubbed ‘The Wickedest Man in the World’. In Crowley’s memoirs, he records having lunch with Macdonald, but Arnott grabs that titbit and lets his mind run free with the wild imaginings of a duo setting off into the Paris night to conjure up the demons and memories of the stiff upper-lipped soldier’s lustful past.

Arnott has claimed that Crowley’s fascination for Empire makes him a direct descendant of Harry Starks, the Krays-inflected gangster from The Long Firm and that The Devil’s Paintbrush isn’t quite the departure it may first appear. Where the book slips is with its Carry on Occult set pieces and an inevitable lack of focus, lurching between two very different back stories and shoehorning in a debate to decide which one was the biggest sinner. The walk-on parts for Baden-Powell, King George VII and Lord Kitchener are mild diversions from a tale told with not so much a light sweep as a bucket of hues splattered everywhere.

(Sceptre)

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