Set in the 60's it is the tale of an unlikely hero, Henry, a retired bank manager, who lives a quiet life tending his dahlias until it is rudely interrupted by the reappearance of his Aunt Augusta, who turns up at his mother's funeral. She seems to have a lived a somewhat wild and bohemian lifestyle, spread across Europe and Latin America, but is currently residing above a pub, with a man who may or may not be called Wordsworth (and who may or may not have mixed pot in with his mother's ashes). Everything about her is mighty suspicious, and she catches Henry's interest with some surprising information about his birth, that his mother was not in fact his mother but had married his father and agreed to take on another woman's illegitimate child. The true identity of his mother is never revealed, though various hints are dropped, and she certainly seems to retain a certain fondness for Henry's father, so you are left to assume that his aunt was in fact his mother. At first Henry longs to escape back to his quiet life, but her stories gradually draw him in, and starting with a tame journey down to Brighton he soon finds himself on the Orient Express across Europe to Turkey and gets embroiled in gold smuggling, spies and war criminals.
I liked Henry so much because in spite of the often strange and disturbing situations he finds himself in he keeps his calm, and manages to handle it all just as you imagine a decent respectable bank manager would. He is very thoughtful and caring, and as his life is turned upside down by his newfound relationship with Aunt Augusta he weighs up with due consideration the advantages and disadvantages of his former quiet life over this new and exciting one she is offering. Aunt Augusta you like because of her exuberance and zest for life, and her slightly melancholy longing for the mysterious Mr Visconti, who has come and gone from her life over the years but remains the object of her affection. She is an eternal optimist, and strangely things always seem to work out for her. It is as if she has taken pity on Henry (maybe feels guilty for her abandonment?), sees his life as shallow and empty and is determined to inject some joy and adventure into it before it is too late.
So after some jaunts across Europe Henry returns to his home and is left bereft for nearly a year, a period punctuated by visits from the nice Sergeant Sparrow, who is very suspicious about his aunt's whereabouts and contacts.
"I feared that my aunt had left me for good. She had come into my life only to disturb it. I had lost the taste for dahlias. When weeds swarmed up I was tempted to let them grow." (p.163)
Eventually a letter arrives and Henry ends up travelling to Paraguay, his only instruction to bring a somewhat anonymous photograph of Freetown Harbour. He finds his aunt almost destitute, but reunited with Mr Visconti, and with her usual bravado she sets about restoring their fortunes, by less than conventional and less than legal means. In the end, you could kind of see it coming, Henry abandons all interest in his quiet life and decides to immerse himself completely in their new business and environment.
The books is wonderfully fast paced, enough descriptive detail to give the tale atmosphere but it is the characters and the action that carry it along. The journeys are peppered with interesting minor players who tell their stories in turn and add to the richness of the book. You can see why some authors will stand the test of time and are considered an important part of our country's literature. I will end with this lovely quote which made me smile because it is about the postal system:
"The afternoon post arrived punctually at five: a circular from Littlewood's, although I never gamble, a bill from the garage, a pamphlet from the British Empire Loyalists which I threw at once into the waste paper basket, and a letter with a South African stamp. The envelope was type written so I did not at once conclude that it had been sent by Miss Keene. I was distracted too by a package of Omo propped against the scraper. I certainly had not ordered any detergent. I looked closer and saw it was a gift package." (p.139-40)