“Bing crooned on the speakers. The orchestra swooned. Moonlight shone through half-drawn blinds, lushly pooled with the shadowless light and the smoke. Well-heeled couples laughed and kissed, half-aglow like Christmas bulbs. Life didn’t get any better than this, even on this dreadful night.”
Beautiful and evocative without ever wandering or losing pace, Red Champagne thunders forward with the same relentless rhythm as the train aboard which much of the story takes place. And yet this story, for all its narrative drive, is not strictly sequential, or bound by the usual structure of temporal necessity. In fact, the idea of temporal dislocation is key to much of the action. Here, time is malleable; the past can be revisited and altered (a prospect that anyone who’s ever had any regrets about anything will find attractive).
The story follows “Gentleman Jimmy”, or Jimmy Fields, the red-haired Irish American ex-safecracker who has begun to create a new life for himself on the right side of the law. Fields is looking forward to a seemingly bright future as he travels cross-country on one of the most luxurious trains of his time, the Twentieth Century. He is with his fiancée Claire, and has plenty of money in the bank. However, there are – of course – one or two clouds on the horizon.
One shadow is thrown by Claire herself, who is frustrated by her lack of progress in her preferred career – so frustrated, in fact, that her way of dealing with her disappointment is almost schizophrenic, and yet fits nicely with the common desire to overcome our own limitations and shrug off our old identities. Watching, and trying to reconcile the different sides of his fiancée’s mercurial personality, Fields occasionally wonders whether their forthcoming marriage is really the panacea he hoped.
A far more serious problem, however, is posed by the presence of the ominous Inspector Reed, a corrupt cop who “will be paid not with money but pain.” Reed won’t rest until Gentleman Jimmy is in prison. And he’s here, aboard the Twentieth Century, following Fields like a threatening shadow.
Then, as the Twentieth Century charges through the snowbound countryside on Christmas Eve, disaster strikes. The conductor and a young boy have become trapped in the onboard safe. “The facts are as grim as they’re simple”: the conductor is the only person who knows the combination to open the door. The train is many miles from any kind of possible outside assistance, and the air supply inside the safe is limited. Fields is faced with an agonising dilemma: he could crack the safe using his old skills, thus effectively exposing himself to Reed as Gentleman Jimmy; or he could turn away from the tragedy unfolding on the train, effectively paying for his own happiness with the lives of others.
Red Champagne captured beautifully for me how much of a person’s life can hang on an instant, and on Fate’s seemingly random flips of the coin. It’s about regret, certainly, and about the desire to overcome the dual tyranny of both the self and the past. Ultimately, though, it is also about hope and happy endings. It’s appropriate, I suppose, that this novel should have been published just before Christmas, the season of supposed miracles. This is a story about a miracle, of sorts; but it’s also about two vivid and sympathetic characters, whose future happiness you’ll desire almost as much as they themselves do.