cover image The Blue Afternoon

The Blue Afternoon

William Boyd. Knopf Publishing Group, $23 (367pp) ISBN 978-0-679-43295-1

Boyd's new novel should carry a label advising readers that an intriguing narrative is initially obscured beneath a plot device that almost ruins the whole thing: in 1936, Los Angeles architect Kay Fisher is approached by elderly Salvadore Carriscant, who tells her he's her father and whisks her off on an improbable journey to Lisbon. Despite that unconvincing framing section, a fascinating love story-cum-murder mystery occupies the heart of the narrative, which flashes back to 1902 Manila. There, the young Carriscant, a brilliant surgeon, falls in love with Daphne Sieverance, the wife of an American colonel whose troops are stationed in the Philippines to quell a bloody insurrection. When two American soldiers are murdered by someone who eviscerates their internal organs, Carriscant helps the chief of the constabulary, the improbably named Paton Bobby, to locate the killer, whom Carriscant suspects but cannot accuse. In this middle section of the novel Boyd suspensefully orchestrates some diabolically clever events, including a fatal air crash, a scene reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet and a shocking climax that will send readers reeling. With the same sure hand that has distinguished the settings of his previous books (A Good Man in Africa; Brazzaville Beach, etc.), he evokes the steamy, fetid atmosphere of old Manila and the class distinctions of the time. He also provides genuinely interesting background detail about medical practice during the days when aseptic surgery was still considered quackery, and about the pioneering years of aeronautics. Much of this novel is as magical as an ``eloquent blue afternoon,'' when the atmosphere is luminescent with magical light. It's too bad that Boyd encased his engrossing central tale in its unwieldy carapace. (Feb.)