The Dying Diplomats Club by Matthew Benns

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

On occasion, established writers of non-fiction can make a successful transition to fiction writing. Not so, in this case. In my view – which is not shared by some of the more prominent members of the writing community – this book has problems. Matthew Benns’s sense of humour is an irritant and his telling is rambling and geared to produce sensation and shock.

Benns is an import from the UK where he worked on national newspapers in London. Having settled in Sydney, he took on the demanding role of editor-at-large for The Daily Telegraph. During the pandemic, he injected his style of humour in a daily detective column featuring Nick Moore and La Contessa. A daily dose, like that of a measure of castor oil, is tolerated and soon forgotten. So it is with lack lustre humour. If it is short, quickly administered, and passes notice quickly, the day moves on, and humour, such as it is, is no longer an issue.

The situation with a book is vastly different. Slight annoyances become large since, invariably, they are repeated. Nick Moore’s ‘my Venetian visionary’ (3) is fine in isolation, but when that same construction re-appears as ‘my Milano marvel’ (5), ‘my Ascoli accuser’ (15), ‘my Ferla feather’ and numerous other strained combinations, one becomes rather annoyed.

Every reader knows that the book is a ‘spoof’ on the lives and behaviours of certain social classes and individuals. But there are boundaries, and occasionally, Benns transgresses. “Oh, you’re SHITE!” said La Contessa, as Nick’s poorly timed mouthful of Champagne snorted out of his nostrils at her use of the acronym” (38). Hardly the words one would expect from a, presumably, cultured woman.

Another example of uncouth behaviour, once again involving La Contessa, reinforces the reader’s poor opinion of Nick and his wife. When speaking about the cooking of a chicken she remarks, “Oh, darling, you are being far too humble… Nick’s coq is simply magnificent.” Nick’s eyes bulged and his cheeks turned puce as he frantically attempted to stop the martini that had gone down the wrong way from spraying over the table (79). The reference is not allowed to fade.

Nick’s constant referral to the need to drink a martini grates upon one’s nerves, the very presence of a moderately large dog at a high society function is more than unusual, and the unfolding of the events in Iraq is tortured. However, when struggling through a mostly uninteresting book, the reader must continue to remind herself that the whole thing is meant as an elaborate joke. Other reviewers have found the story highly entertaining, something I cannot do. The story matches a certain style of humour. I look for something more Morse than Lewis, a glass of wine in preference to fish and chips. The solution to the ‘crimes’ committed through the tale is so unacceptable that it actually suits the silliness of the spoof and, naturally enough, wins immediate acceptance by the outstanding figure of ridicule, the Police Inspector.

The selection of a Beagle as the type of dog to appear was inspired. A beagle has a sense of humour and a deep attachment to its owner. I have not heard of its use as an attack dog.

But then I’ve never read a book like this either.

The Dying Diplomats Club

(2021)

by Matthew Benns

HarperCollins

ISBN: 978-1-4607-6018-5

$29.99; 288 pp

 

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