The Next Best Thing
C. Stephen Gray is Director of Information Services, Institute of
Chartered Accountants of Ontario.
This is an ambitious and entertaining novel, with an exotic setting and several memorable characters. Part lurid pot-boiler, part anthropological voyage, The Next Best Thing manages to combine some of the pace of “Indiana Jones” with some of the color and intrigue of Le Carre’s The Honourable Schoolboy.
Saul’s hero, James Spenser, a refugee from his post as a distinguished Orientalist at the Victoria and Albert Museum, cashes in his assets and sets out for Bangkok: his mission, to purloin twenty 200-pound Buddhas from an abandoned temple in nearby Burma. They’re there for the taking — all he has to do is get through a couple of warring guerilla factions, some border police, several hundred miles of jungle, and come back.
His quest bands him in the middle of local opium wars, third world politics, and the marital problems of his guide, a quiet American named Blake, who really is reminiscent of one of Graham Greene’s “whiskey priests.” The story makes for good, escapist reading, and is made believable because of the light touch Saul uses with both his characters and their dialogue. The novel could have strained for epic qualities, but the author has no such pretensions: his characters are eccentric but real, and their behavior in a genuinely bizarre setting is surprisingly natural. Anyone with a taste for the exotic, but whose adventures seldom take him further than the library, should enjoy this novel.