The Buddha of Brewer Street
by Michael Dobbs
Published by HarperCollins
1998, 261 pages
Buy it online
The Dalai Dilemma
Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce
Politics and religion are rarely the first resorts of conversation, since both topics tend to inspire heated debate and play (often disastrously) upon deeply entrenched biases. The very fact that they kindle controversy, though, is what makes these subjects such attractive sources of absorbing fiction. Certainly British author Michael Dobbs understood this when he chose to entangle his bumbling "parliamentary detective" in the dangerous search for Tibet's next Dalai Lama.
A former senior advisor to Conservatives Margaret Thatcher and John Major, Dobbs knows intimately of the back slapping and back stabbing that go on at the Palace of Westminster. He demonstrated this with his premiere novel, House of Cards (1989), which featured Francis Urquhart, the delightfully Machiavellian chief whip and backroom disciplinarian who deftly employed the secrets of his adversaries against them in his steady campaign to become Prime Minister. That book was followed by two sequels, To Play the King and The Final Cut, all three of them eventually turned into BBC-TV series starring Ian Richardson. Among British political thrillers, few have rivaled the Urquhart series for verisimilitude. Or viciousness.
However, the political protagonist of Dobbs' latest two tales has proved to be a far more sympathetic character -- and, therefore, probably far less likely to be taken down by either ballots or bullets -- than was Urquhart. Thomas Goodfellowe, introduced in Goodfellowe MP (1997), is a middle-aged former cabinet minister who quit the government after his son drowned and his wife succumbed to a depressive catatonia. Now an incidental Member of Parliament, an apparently pitiful has-been with escalating debts, a drunk-driving conviction, and a headstrong teenage daughter named Sam, he has been reduced to living in cramped quarters above a kitchen in London's Chinatown. Were Francis Urquhart still about, he'd avoid the rumpled Goodfellowe as if the man carried some especially virulent plague.
Yet Goodfellowe often proves to be as benevolent a figure as his name implies. With seemingly little left to lose in his career, he can afford to investigate and champion some very unpopular causes. Including, in The Buddha of Brewer Street, the hunt for a missing boy who may be the reincarnation of Tibet's revered and recently deceased spiritual leader. I repeat: may be. The congenitally skeptical Goodfellowe isn't convinced that Buddhist monks can identify a reborn Dalai Lama. Nor is he sure that he has the time or the energy to get mixed up in this international affair, what with so many domestic worries on his plate, including his stalled relationship with a restaurateur and the possibility that Sam is pregnant. But he does get involved -- and almost immediately regrets it, for the case pits him against foreign assassins and local mobsters; draws his daughter attention from predatory Chinese gang members; and forces the casually sexist Goodfellowe to exploit his curvaceous young assistant, Mickey Ross, in ways guaranteed to make them both feel irredeemably soiled.
The Buddha of Brewer Street is rattling good political fiction -- intriguing and instructive and, periodically, humorous. Dobbs has obviously done his homework about Tibetan culture and history. Although he pretty much caricatures Chinese apparatchiks, his portrayal of a veteran Chinese woman diplomat is menacing and memorable. Perhaps best of all, the author resists demonizing western elected officials, as some lesser writers are wont to do. Rather, he makes clear that like anyone else, politicians are guilty of vacillation and venality, in varying degrees. Even the unexpectedly heroic Goodfellowe -- particularly Goodfellowe -- is riddled with faults. But, as Mickey tells him in one of her glibber moments, "the point is you try. Why do you think I can forgive your appalling manners and intolerable tempers that would make me disembowel any other man with my fingernails? Because you try. You make mistakes that are many and sometimes grotesque, but you make them for the right reasons. The right motivations."
It's hard not to wonder if maybe, by making Tom Goodfellowe such a likable and helpful sort, writer Dobbs isn't seeking some sort of karmic balance against the fictional maliciousness of Francis Urquhart. If so, let's hope that his need for expiation lasts at least long enough to get him through three or four more installments to this series. Goodfellowe may not be the most promising resident in the House of Commons, but when it comes to appealing political sleuths, he's got my vote any day.
Seattle resident J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine, as well as the author of San Francisco, You're History! (Sasquatch Books, 1995) and America's Historic Trails with Tom Bodett (KQED Books, 1997).