Given Jon Cleary's remarkable record of more than 30 novels, well written and diverse, a reader can't help but pick up "The Faraway Drums" with the hint of a shiver at the base of the spine, ready to explode on signal that this book does something special for its kind. It's called transcending the genre, which is in this instance adventure and/or romance in exotic lands, specifically British India.
"The Faraway Drums" doesn't, and why should it? Only the disappointment of a frustrated reviewer, who not only yearns for diamonds in the rough but to be the one to discover them, could possibly turn querulous over this good-natured, serviceable offering to escapists everywhere.
In Cleary's case, the fault may lie not so much in himself as in the stars, those bright lights of the genre that tend to fade out everything else in the vicinity. Kipling, E.M. Forster, even M.M. Kaye, for all their differences, have set standards that other writers are hard-pressed to match. Now, the story must seize, the insights fascinate, or the setting seduce, and "The Faraway Drums" falls short on all three counts.
Most surprising in a book by Cleary is the relative languor of the story. After a promising start ("It was a beautifully clear day for an ambush"), in which British intelligence officer Clive Farnol proves himself requisitely brave and resourceful, the adventure subsides from a peak of action to a plateau of passivity it only escapes fitfully for the rest of the book. Alerted to a plot to assassinate King George V in Delhi at his upcoming coronation as emperor of India, Major Farnol, far from leaping on his horse and riding hell-for-leather across the Indian countryside to deliver the warning in time, utterly confutes the book-jacket promise ("a heart-stopping race with time") by joining a leisurely caravan en route to the festivities and spending six out of his seven days' grace dressing for dinner and enjoying the scenery in the company of the ladies.
Admittedly, his traveling companions obscure the unsettling lack of urgency by providing a gorgeous representation of the latter days of the British empire. This hodgepodge of the Raj includes a Hungarian arms salesman and his tart of a wife, a nymphomaniac Indian Ranee and her mad brother Bobs, an Irish foot soldier, the cricket-crazy Nawab of Kalanpur with his six wives, and a lovable German baron. That's not counting the eccentric English widow (the best kind) and Farnol's native sidekick, Sikh Karim Singh, who is described as more loyal than brave, a nice twist to the formula, and, after all, sepoys will be sepoys.
Finally, there's Bridie O'Brady, a beautiful American newspaper reporter from Boston to whom Farnol pays attention when he's not playing hide-and-Sikh or chatting amiably with his companions, or, very occasionally, confounding inept assassins. Unfortunately, few of these folks consistently live up to their stereotypes and none rises above them, leaving the reader with the feeling that they are more realistic than the literary form allows, but not extraordinary enough either to parody or to elevate it.
The description of exotic India sets an adequate stage, though it does not compare with that land's sights, smells and tastes as evoked elsewhere. But Cleary's sense of humor is a joy, evidenced in wry thrusts of observation: "India: four hundred million bystanders"; "Ahearn . . . had never heard of an Irish eunuch and did not want to be the first"; "She was one of those tough-minded, cheery nurses; she would have told John the Baptist's head not to worry"; "he longed to be a martyr" but "would have preferred to be an elderly martyr."
I like Bridie wearing a bowler hat with her peignoir and advancing the narrative with lively passages from her memoirs written some 50 years later. Farnol is a perfect gentleman, politely turning his back on his beloved in her bath and warding off the panting Ranee throughout the book.
"The Faraway Drums" does not sound a different beat, but it marches to a dependable measure. Avoid reading that book jacket and expect what you get, a standard of its kind with an incidental ruffle of wit.