Early in Justin Cartwright’s new novel, his protagonist, named after Richard I of England — “But I am usually called Richie” — is gloomily assessing his milquetoast life while feeding a supposedly cleansing bonfire with old garden furniture and sharing haphazardly-barbecued sausages with a curious fox.
Richie is bereft and at something of a crossroads.
He is nearly 33, has never had a proper job, and his girlfriend, Emily, has just left him for her creative writing teacher, citing her desire for that old and — especially given that she has taken a new lover — insulting standby, “personal space.”
In a desperate bid for direction, Richie contacts his old university tutor, the splendidly monikered Stephen Feuchtwanger, inquiring about possible research grants; when one becomes available, Richie cannibalizes his deceased father’s old papers on the art of the Crusaders — his dad had had a lifelong obsession with Richard I and Robin Hood — for an appropriate topic.
Faster than you can say, “Where on earth is this novel going?” Richie is off on his own transformative quest.
In “Lion Heart’’ the award-winning and prolific British novelist Cartwright serves up a tale, part offbeat, slightly late-in-life bildungsroman, part post-9/11, state-of-the-world adventure, part thriller, and all slyly drawing on the clash of beliefs that continue to drive violence in the Middle East.
The action then shifts to Israel, where researcher Richie falls in love with a Canadian-Palestinian journalist named Noor. An impetuous marriage proposal follows. Noor goes to Cairo for a story and abruptly disappears, leaving Richie with an all-too-real mystery on his hands.
In the meantime, Richie pursues an increasingly compelling strand of historical investigation, revealing chunks of narrative that encompass Saracen-Crusader politics, intrigue, and battles of the 12th century, a line of inquiry that may or may not be leading Richie to discovering the whereabouts of the True Cross of Jesus.
In reality, Richie is a bit of a cold fish, though you wouldn’t know it from the way that most people, both women and men, fall over themselves to help him out. And in the able hands of Cartwright, you willingly follow Richie’s path despite his obnoxiousness.
He is sniffy about many things (“I have never liked thrillers, because the authors withhold information improbably”), snobby about nearly everything else, and given to elaborate non-sequiturs: “Noor has all but rejected me, and my five brave knights, who are supposed to make my name as the writer of an upmarket “The Da Vinci Code,’’ are stranded somewhere, both in my mind and in the region of the Puy-en-Velay in the Auvergne now best known for its lentils.”
The thing is, Cartwright also makes Richie unexpectedly funny. He’s far from streetwise, but retains a certain books-driven understanding of the world; because of Kafka's “The Trial,’’ for example, he knows “that injustices happen daily.”
Somehow this approach works for him, even when he tangles with serious business like the anti-terrorism branch of the British police or a truly annoying Canadian consular attaché.
And Cartwright’s trademark razor-sharp language serves him well, whether Richie is having a savage rant about writers, academic fashions, or fancy London dogs (“In the cold weather these little creatures trot along wearing a coat just in case they should become distressed, or even slightly put out. Some of them refuse to walk at all when faced by a puddle and then they are picked up and carried comfortably under the arm, as if they are baguettes”).
This is a novel of many elements and mixed successes — one particularly distressing plotline was treated surprisingly lightly — but for the most part “Lion Heart’’ is both fascinating and entertaining.Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.