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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 November 2003, 11:41 GMT
'I hate to kick a man when he's down, but...'
Iain Duncan Smith's novel seems to be spawning a new art-form in its own right - critics seeking to say honestly how much they hate the book without appearing to kick a man when he's down.

Reviews of The Devil's Tune, published on Thursday, have trod a delicate line.

On the one hand, the critics have been polite, generous and considerate of the feelings of a man whose career has crumbled about him in little more than a week.

But on the other hand, as far as the book itself is concerned, they have been far from kind. Very far from kind.

Mr Duncan Smith's publisher, Robson Books, bills the novel as "an ingenious fast-paced thriller with an intriguing cast of characters reaching the highest level of office".

But critics do not seem to be of the same mind.

  • Sam Leith in the Daily Telegraph kicked things off. "We owe the former Conservative leader the courtesy, at least, of trying to read his novel not as a political curiosity, but on its own merits," he wrote. "And I honestly wish I didn't have to say this, because it feels like kicking a man when he is down... but, really, it's terrible. Human sympathy strains in one direction; critical judgment the other. Terrible, terrible, terrible." He adds that it's "woodwormy with cliché," with "sketchy" characterisation and "preposterous" plot. "This thriller does not thrill. The second-hand, un-thought quality of the style has a deadening effect," he adds with a cruel flourish.

    The dialogue is severely cliché-ridden
    Ann Widdecombe

  • Peter Preston in the Guardian wrote: "Duncan Smith's gift for dialogue is strictly British B movie circa 1953. ('Are you all right, Ursula?' he asked gently, laying a hand on her shoulder. 'Oh John,' she choked, 'it's awful.')" He does commend the soon-to-be-ex-Tory leader for having "oodles of British pluck" and "awesome bravery" for daring to publish the book in the first place, but he adds: "His prose ranges from lumpen to beserkly lush... the plotting is full of clumsy clotting."

  • John Sutherland, Northcliffe Professor of English Literature at University College London, also writing in the Guardian, starts by trying to be positive. "Mock not, Fleet Street. Did not Winston Churchill himself, in the political wilderness, publish a Ruritanian romance? Did not London's critical hyenas, in 1900, pour their bile on his honest literary effort? Was he not back-stabbed by his party colleagues? And did he not, four decades later, sweep into Downing Street? And, to rub it in, did he not, five decades later, (having won a world war) win the Nobel Prize - for literature?" Yes, is the answer. But then Sutherland concludes: "IDS has as much chance of doing a Winston Churchill as Rapper Tony Benn has of going quadruple platinum. The ex-leader of the Tories may, of course, win the Bulwer Lytton prize for the worst fictional prose of the year."

    You could almost see it being turned into a TV drama starring the old Comic Strip team

  • John Walsh, in the Independent, describes The Devil's Tune as "a remarkable thriller in being, for much of its considerable length, militantly un-thrilling". But he does go out of his way to compliment IDS as a "scrupulous, decent, straight-dealing, poetry-loving, redundancy-dishing-out former leader of men".

  • Edwina Currie, a fellow novelist and Tory, tried to be kind to Mr Duncan Smith and encourage him in his writing. But she told BBC Radio 4's PM programme: "It's not exactly Tolstoy, is it? He's doing the old trick of telling us what happened instead of letting us live it through the writing. It feels like you're reading a second hand newspaper report of it. It's not the best writing."

    IDS has as much chance of doing a Winston Churchill as Rapper Tony Benn has of going quadruple platinum
    John Sutherland

  • Political commentator Steve Richards told Radio 4's Front Row: "I'm afraid I have to say the impression I got flicking through is that it's pretty grim stuff really. He hasn't even learnt the tricks of formulaic thriller. The characters aren't one dimensional, they're semi-one dimensional... It's not very good... The book is hopeless, but it's interesting that he tried."

  • Ann Widdecombe, a successful novelist in her own right, had the kindest words for IDS, saying in the Guardian that the book would not have received such a hostile reception if it had been written by anyone else. "The Devil's Tune by Iain Duncan Smith is scarcely the greatest literature of all time but as a thriller and easy read it will while away a plane journey (or, at 400-plus pages, a couple of plane journeys) perfectly pleasantly." She adds that "the dialogue is severely cliché-ridden but people do have a habit of talking in clichés , which is why such sayings become clichés, dash it".

    New career?

    As yet, there are no customer reviews of the book at Amazon. But people who have ordered it also bought Joan Bakewell's autobiography The Centre of the Bed, and former Tory foreign secretary Douglas Hurd's memoirs, among other items.

    Mr Duncan Smith has shrugged off the criticism of his literary efforts, saying he wrote the book for his own amusement and knew it "was not going to win the Booker Prize".

    The self-styled "quiet man" of British politics believes he can carve out a new career as a novelist, telling one recent interviewer he now considers himself a writer.

    And although he is only reported to have received an advance of £2,500 for his first effort, he may well have the last laugh, as there is already talk of a film.




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