There’s much to like and enjoy in this book – what a pity there’s also Fry’s mandatory offensiveness. It’s as if you were being taken through a lovely and fascinating house, but now and again have to scrape crap off your shoes because the owner, who otherwise has admirable taste and resources, unaccountably feels that he should defecate here and there throughout the place to show his cheeky wit or worldly sophistication. A nicer analogy would perhaps be to say it’s like having to suffer drunken noisy yuppies talking over a fabulous jazz band because they refuse to play in a concert hall – the experience is really undermined by the context. But if Fry was choosing between the two analogies, he’d take the turd every time.
The Hippopotamus, at least, unlike The Liar, doesn’t scrupulously ensure some adulterous reference or activity every few pages, however Fry forces some definitively gratuitous perversion into the plot. The book would have worked perfectly (indeed, far better) if David felt his ‘gift’ could work through innocent touch, but Fry’s hardly incontestable preaching that any sort of sexual activity (sodomy, adultery, fornication, casual, minors, promiscuity, prostitution, bestiality, seduction…) is at worst utterly harmless, and probably beneficial, is the ugly cost of spending much time with his narrative or characters.
In most writers that would be enough to see me dismiss the book entirely – why put yourself in such deliberately offensive company? This question is more than rhetorical, however, as my ‘B’ grade is meant to reflect the level of ambivalence I have in recommending it. That being said, given the overt and considerable flaws of content and philosophy, there must be some pretty damn redeeming features.
Such as his central character. He’s well drawn and likeable – a clever trick given that Ted himself would have the honesty to admit that he’s an appallingly selfish old dissolute bastard. Here and there among all the fabulously rude invective we’re allowed to be won over by little examples of his subtle consideration for the underdog. His trenchant diatribes are often thoroughly enjoyable. Moreover the supporting cast are ably painted, and the dialogue in, for example, the big dining scene, powerful and driving. Moreover we get the occasional Lodge-like added pleasure of the same event from differing perspectives.
The setting and plot turn out to happily borrow much from a classic English mannered detective story: there’s a mystery, new sensational ‘crimes’ keep popping up to drive us along (in this case miraculous healings), and our prescribed set of characters interact in a wealthy country house. The climactic revelation – the traditional detective taking his pleasure in unravelling the crime to his decreasingly sceptical audience – ties the book together well enough (not brilliantly, but far better than the scratchy mess of the resolution of The Liar). There’s still the deus ex machina of most crime books – the frustrating way events the reader could not possibly be aware of (such as Jane’s condition) confirm the detective’s otherwise wild theory – but this is bearable.
And finally, stylistically Fry is wonderfully readable. His prose (occasional content aside) is generally a pleasant ride – not Wodehouse or Adams, but not needing to be, and not suffering from the comparison.
I can see how some would relish his books – all the philosophical and sexual bias that put me off would give sympathisers enormous pleasure: what could be more fun than bashing believers and eulogising rampantly promiscuous gays? And indulging an over-the-top character like Oliver would be like having an extra helping of dessert – fine if you haven’t been feeling nauseous since the first course. And while this might be an inflammatory line to take, it’s monumentally ironic that anyone could dare take offence from any attack on a book so deliberately inflammatory and offensive to any Christian reader.
So, there you go. I dare say my reaction is not entirely dissimilar to that of Fry who probably loves much of the work of the many high profile pro-heterosexual fidelity devout protestants in the western literary tradition, but finds the underlying assumptions of their admirable works a bitter pill to have to endure along the way.
 Or could it even be unwittingly? Not that Fry doesn’t realise that theists opposing promiscuity would find his line objectionable, but more that in his social world and fundamentally gay perspective such people barely exist as more than a concept.