At last In these modern, troubled times, when the Conservatives are racked with party strife and the President of the United States reads that charlatan Ian Fleming as bed-time entertainment, a truly fine mystery has been published. There can be little doubt that with The Report Mr. Denning has attained the skill of G.K. Chesterton. And Chesterton was a man who could tell a tale in the old style.
"The old style," surely that is a rubric often used but ill-remembered. Mr. Denning, however, has followed it to the letter, for he has assembled an intriguing group of principal persons. "The story must start with Stephen Ward, aged fifty," he writes. A minister's son, a professional osteopath, and an occasional artist, Ward had a "quick and easy manner of conversation which attracted some but repelled others.... He was at the same time utterly immoral...and he admired the soviet regime and sympathised with Communists."
As Ward's ally, Denning presents the wily foreigner, Eugene Ivanov, assistant naval attache at the Russian Embassy in London. "He had qualities not normally found in a Russian officer in this country. His English was good and he was keen to meet people. He drank a good deal, however, ad was something of a ladies' man." Enter Christine Keeler who was "employed at the Murray Cabaret Club as a show girl which involved, as she put it, just walking around with no clothes on....She had undoubted physical attractions."
Now add Mr. John Profumo, Great Britain's Secretary of State for War, and place all four on the luxurious Cliveden Estate of Lord Astor one sultry summer evening.
On Saturday, after nightfall, Stephen Ward and some of the girls were bathing in the swimming pool when one of them, Christine Keeler, whilst she was in the water, took off her bathing costume, throw it on the bank, and bathed naked.....Soon afterwards (the rest of the party) came to watch the bathing...Christine rushed to get her swimming costume. Stephen Ward threw it to one side so Christine could not get it and Christine seized a towel to hide herself. Lord Astor and Mr. Profume arrived at this moment and it was all treated as a place of fun, nothing indecent at all.
Whilst nothing indecent at all happened that summer night, subsequent events related by Mr. Denning unravel a sophisticated mystery of sex, scandal, and security.
With such a setting and such characters Denning has brought back a highly successful formula. Properly, he never lets up for a moment. Let me cite a few chapter headings to make my point: "Stephen Ward Helping the Russians." "The Slashing and Shooting: 1) The Slashing, 2) The Shooting," "The Disappearance of Christine Keeler," "The Solicitor Is Afraid She Has Been Sprited From the Country," and "Was there A Conspiracy?" This, I submit, makes for excitement of the highest order.
Moreover, Denning has ingeniously found a new role for his sleuth. Portrayed as a member of the House of Lords, the master detective investigates the affair for an aging Prime Minister, and the whole book is cleverly written in the form of a parliamentary report.
MY only cavil concerns certain implausibilities in the plot. But Mr. Denning's exuberance is easily forgiven in light of the rebirth of this type of fiction.