(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Shuttlecock is the odd, tense narrative of a man known only as Prentis, a senior clerk in an obscure government agency which collects and preserves information pertaining to closed cases and unsolved crimes. Prentis, the son of a British war hero, lives in the shadow of a past commemorated in his father’s memoirs about the war, Shuttlecock: The Story of a Secret Agent. Over his family’s objections, Prentis goes every Sunday to visit his father in the mental institution where Prentis, Sr., resides as a catatonic after a mysterious breakdown. Since his life at home is unsatisfying and filled with conflict (his sons dislike him as a result of his abusiveness; his wife is a willing but passive “victim” of his frequent sexual advances and is uncommunicative in other matters), Prentis, who is in line to take over Quinn’s position upon the chief’s retirement, becomes obsessed with his job and the business of keeping secrets. His narration of a series of events involving his father’s past and his own complicity in the family history stands in the form of a confession as Prentis exorcises his guilt for terrorizing his sons and turning his wife “into a whore.” In this psychoanalytic parable disguised as a mystery story (much as one of Western culture’s first mysteries, Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, c. 429 B.C., is disguised), the narrator-protagonist of Shuttlecock gains entrance into a form of adulthood by recognizing and, paradoxically, repressing the sins of the father.

The mystery is initiated when Prentis notices that Quinn is holding back some vital information concerning three vaguely related “cases,” of “X,” “Y,” and “Z”:

X (now deceased), a former civil servant, sacked for alcoholic incompetence and later arrested for a number of petty frauds and sexual offences, who had made allegations against a certain Home Office official, Y—allegations subsequently investigated (without Y’s knowledge, either of the allegations or the investigation) and found to be false. X died of a heart attack while undergoing trial . . . and . . . another Home Official, Z, apparently unconnected, professionally or personally, with Y (or X), who had committed suicide (by stepping in front of an Underground train) shortly after the secret investigations on Y.

As Prentis is accustomed to Quinn’s...

(The entire section is 992 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Clemons, Walter. “A Swift Arrival,” in Newsweek. CV (June 24, 1985), p. 74.

The Observer. Review. September 13, 1981, p. 24.

Punch. Review. CCLXXXI (September 16, 1981), p. 483.