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Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Bryce Courtney’s final novel reads a bit like a TV Best Sellers Series. (Review by Keith Millar)

Bryce Courtney was considered to be Australia’s favourite storyteller during a career which spanned 23 years and 21 books Mostly, he wrote popular sagas and produced many best sellers amongst which were The Power Of One, The Potato Factory and Jessica.

Unfortunately, Jack of Diamonds, his final novel which was published just prior to his death last year, is not quite in the same class.

It starts promisingly enough as it describes the early life of Jack Spayd who grew up in the slums of Cabagetown, Toronto, in Canada. It is set during the Great Depression and life is harsh with deprivation and hardship commonplace.

Jack lives with his beloved mother and a brutal drunken father. His whole life is centred on survival in this unforgiving environment and it seems as if he will never find a way out of this cycle of poverty. But then his father gives him a battered old harmonica which he won in a late-night card-game. Jack finds that he has an exceptional musical talent and this leads him to a jazz club, and then classical piano lessons and eventually an escape from Cabagetown for him and his mother.

The story is written in the first person and, through skilful use of words and sentence construction, Courtney is able to give a very real sense of this precocious young man telling the story. However, this is not sustained and as the story progresses there are sections which do not have the same credibility. Courtney was suffering from ill-health during the writing of this book and at times it seems as if he was trying to fit too much information and too many ideas into one publication.

As the story progresses, Jack Spayd travels to the frontier town of Moose Jaw in the Canadian prairies where he becomes a virtuoso jazz pianist. Unfortunately, he is addicted to poker and although very proficient at the game, he falls foul of the wrong people and is forced to flee to save his life. He then joins the army and becomes a highly skilled medic (very good at everything he tries, is our hero!) in wartime Europe.

His next stop is Las Vegas where he falls in love with his boss and also becomes one of the leading musicians and poker players in the City. Initially, Jack prospers but then his luck changes and he gets on the wrong side of the Mafia who rule Las Vegas. Again he is forced to flee and go into hiding. This leads him to Africa where he finds himself working in the copper mines of Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) until once again he has problems and has to flee for his life.

By the end of this book, Bryce Courtney was terminally ill and knowing he would never be able to write a sequel, he winds up the story of Jack Spayd rather quickly by way of an epilogue.

Jack of Diamonds is a very long book. It has over 700 pages. However, one can’t help feeling that the story could have been tightened up considerably and the length reduced. That said, there is no doubt that Courtney has met his objective as an author and produced a big entertaining story that is easy to read. A bit like a TV Best Sellers Series.

Those who enjoy Bryce Courtney books will I am sure forgive the verbosity of this book and he will remain their favourite storyteller.

Jack of Diamonds is published by Penguin Group (Australia). The ISDN number is 9780670076079. Recommended retail price is R280. – Keith Millar