AS MEAT LOVES SALT

By Maria McCann

Harvest. 565 pp. Paperback, $15

It has long been accepted by readers of detective fiction that the narrator of the story should not be the culprit. The approved reason for this is that if he were the murderer, his mind would be too much upon the murder he has committed for him to withhold the fact of his guilt.

Well, what is true for mysteries is, at least in some sense, also true for so-called mainstream fiction. Leaving aside those rare puzzlers, such as John Updike's Roger's Version, in which the reader is best advised to "trust the tale and not the teller," we wish our narrators to play fair with us on the page.

What a shock, then, to find about a hundred pages into As Meat Loves Salt that Jacob Cullen, the narrator and protagonist, who has seemed a decent-enough fellow up to that point, turns out to be a brutal and sadistic murderer. There are indeed more surprises. At book's end Jacob is on a ship sailing for the New World and has by that time convinced us that he is not merely brutal, but also quite mad. In the more than 400 pages between, he has killed, stolen, betrayed and grievously assaulted others as well.

Still, this novel is set in England in the 17th century, during the vicious civil war fought between Oliver Cromwell's Roundheads and the Cavaliers loyal to King Charles I. Could the author, Maria McCann, be suggesting that, bad as he is, Jacob Cullen may be no more than representative of his age? No, Jacob is exceptional -- exceptionally nasty -- and to prove the case, I refer you to the plot, such as it is.

When Jacob, newly married, finds himself rightly suspected of murder, he takes his bride and runs for the woods. He confides to her that, yes, he is guilty, and that this explains why he grabbed her and ran. Next morning he wakes up to find her gone, fled from him and from all he has confessed. Fearing that she may lead the authorities to him, he continues to run until he falls in with Cromwell's New Model Army as it rages through the west country. Its goal is Basing-House, a castle reinforced and ready for a siege. Jacob is given a pike and taught how to use it. The expected siege lasts but a few days. Talented in violence of every sort, Jacob acquits himself well with pike and sword. But having had all of war that he wishes to have, he deserts with his great army friend Christopher Ferris.

Ferris, a gentleman, takes him to his aunt's place in London. There Jacob's friend becomes his lover. Their affair, carried out in secret, follows a predictable course -- from mawkish and sentimental to demanding and rejecting. Jacob is simply too crude and brutal in his sexuality to keep his friend long as a lover.

Ferris founds a colony of diggers on unused land belonging to one of the local gentry. (You're right; that was a warning light that just went off.) When Jacob's bride makes a sudden reappearance, carrying a baby that may be Jacob's, she disclaims all knowledge of him or their marriage. Ferris takes an interest in her, and when the landowner's men come to drive the diggers off the land, he is beaten -- probably to death -- while attempting to protect her and the child. All of this Jacob watches at a safe distance, having failed to give the warning that would have saved them.

This book found a very enthusiastic reception in England, and it has some important things in its favor. It is told in a kind of synthetic 17th-century prose that is quite effective. It gives a good sense of the confusion and ugliness of the time -- but surely it could have been done in about 200 fewer pages.

Finally, there is that problem of the narrator/protagonist. Is it necessary that we like the narrator of a novel? That we applaud and cheer the protagonist on? Not at all. The sole obligation of the author to the reader is to make a book's characters interesting, and the leading character should be most interesting of all. Jacob Cullen is likely to be of interest only to those who eagerly lap up tales of serial killers and child murderers in the tabloids. Just imagine being trapped with such a man for 565 pages! *

Bruce Cook lives in Los Angeles, where he writes a series of historical mysteries under a pseudonym.