Dead Man Leading is V. S. Pritchett’s fourth novel—he wrote only one more novel, Mr. Beluncle (1951), before returning to the short stories and literary criticism that are his forte. Unlike much of his work in which the setting is the everyday, even humdrum, world, the novel offers the exotic background of the South American jungle. And instead of the quirks, vanities, weaknesses, greed, and aspirations of people in the ordinary walks of life, usually handled with humor or satire, the reader is presented with upperclass English explorers and an obsessed, but larger-than-life, hero whose struggle is presented with some sympathy and full seriousness, perhaps too much seriousness. Although Pritchett’s deft light humor flicks about the minor characters Silva and Calcott, the novelist seems to take his mission almost as humorlessly as the protagonist takes his.
The success of the novel depends largely on the believability of the flawed, Conradian hero. The desertion of his companions by a seasoned explorer with Johnson’s background, traditional loyalties, and ingrained ethical standards requires a skillful artist to appear plausible. Conrad could have written the story convincingly; for a number of critics, Pritchett did. If so, his success was limited: When the reader closes the book, Harry Johnson fades rapidly into the Brazilian jungle and out of mind, certainly not the case with some of the more typical of the author’s creations.