London is both theater and protagonist in Paul Theroux’s novel. His cast comes from every layer of its society. In Deptford, a seedy riverside district, lives a group that might pass for a family: Valentine Hood, late an American consul in Hue (sacked for assaulting a Vietnamese official); Mayo, a female thief working for the IRA Provisionals; and two street-wise teen-age waifs, Murf who makes bombs, and the girl, Brodie, who plants them.
Hood casts his lot with these dubious terrorists and with the Provos, who distrust his motives and keep him on the hook. Impelled to act for action’s sake, Hood becomes embroiled in a murder that triggers a shock wave of far-reaching consequences. Hood’s solo activities, meshing perilously with the IRA’s planned English offensive, draw more unlikely players into the game: Lady Arrow, who blackmails for kicks; Araba Nightwing and her actors’ commune of canting radicals; and bowler-hatted Mr. Gawber, who keeps the books for everyone. Urban struggle, Hood learns, is a family affair.
The Family Arsenal ranges wide, covering well-mapped parts of London such as Mayfair and the West End, and the darker, less-charted territory of the city’s netherworid. It is at once a superbly crafted novel of complex relationships and a tautly strung thriller, vastly compelling on both levels.