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The Message to the Planet

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Happy is the reader with a taste for a really reliable author, one who can be counted on to publish an entertaining novel ev evcouple of years, often enough to whet the appetite but not so often as to threaten satiety. For certain fans, and we know who we are, no author fills the bill so well as Britain’s Dame Iris Murdoch.

Dame Iris writes series novels for smart people. A philosopher herself, and married to another, her books drop learned allusions to other philosophers, to other writers, to history, religion, and arcane texts. These novels — the new one is her 24th — are not technically a series, as new characters appear in each, but they might as well be. Those who dislike them complain that they’re all the same: febrile romances hurling arty middle-class Londoners into fervidly inappropriate love affairs and crises fueled by overdoses of metaphysical irony and gnomic ecstasy. Those of us who like the bouquet agree, and look forward to each offering.

That said, it is also true that, as with any great wine, some harvests are better than others. The Message to the Planet examines the subject of the Great Man and his influence on ordinary mortals, a theme Dame Iris has tackled before, most hilariously in The Philosopher’s Pupil. This new book, in fact, could be read as a watered-down version of that one, wan where it was robust, flat where it sparkled. There, the Great Man, John Robert Rozanov, was majestic as well as appalling and ridiculous. Here, the unmajestic Marcus Vallar, who may or may not have miraculous powers, appears to be, as one character says, ”a Sphinx without a secret,” which would be OK if he and his acolytes were not so damp.

Dame Iris likes large casts, and has her own stock company, but here they merely walk through their roles. The triangle of man, wife, and mistress is one of her favorites, but, compared with the riotous triangles of past novels, | how dull they are here! Let’s hope the next book is as lively and flavorful as Murdoch at her vintage best. This one is for forgiving fans, not for the casual consumer. C