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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The English Assassin

Michael Moorcock

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To purchase The Cornelius Quartet

Title: The English Assassin
Author: Michael Moorcock
Genre: Novel
Written: 1977
Length: 244 pages
Availability: in The Cornelius Quartet - US
in The Cornelius Quartet - UK
in The Cornelius Quartet - Canada
in Les Aventures de Jerry Cornelius - France
Ein Mord für England - Deutschland
  • A Romance of Entropy
  • Available in The Cornelius Quartet (also: The Cornelius Chronicle, see our review)
  • The English Assassin was first published in its revised form in 1979
  • Illustrated by Richard Glyn Jones, title page by Malcolm Dean

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Our Assessment:

B : dark, fairly well-told tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The English assassin of the title is, of course, none other than Jerry Cornelius. But Jerry isn't doing so well at the beginning of the novel. Or for much of the novel, for that matter. Whereas in the previous two Cornelius chronicles it had been beloved sister Catherine who was generally to be found in some near-death state, here it is Jerry who isn't faring so well. For much of the novel he belongs in a coffin -- and that is where he can be found.
       Moorcock begins The English Assassin more deliberately than the previous two installments of Jerry's adventures, with a somewhat slower build-up. But there's no plodding here: the action comes as furious as ever -- and some of it is quite good action indeed. But it is also a more thoughtful, heavier tome, with more of a message to it.
       After an initial dedication, Moorcock also dedicates the book "to the memories of" a fair number of famed people, including Dennis Hopper, George Steiner, Spiro Agnew, Kingsley Amis, and "all men of conscience and Jolly Englishmen everywhere". It is clearly not out of admiration: here and elsewhere in the book Moorcock is expressing his disappointment in the age and those in positions of authority and influence.
       The sections of the book are also prefaced by brief newspaper reports of generally horrific crimes, usually involving young children. Moorcock acknowledges changing the names of those involved (to prevent causing further distress to "parents and relatives"), but says: "No other part of the quotation has been altered." It is a gruesome and disturbing litany, periodically breaking up the book and serving well to shake up the reader. Jerry's adventures may often be shocking, but in many respects they pale against the banality and prevalence of everyday evil in the reader's own seemingly safe world.
       There are eight installments of alternative apocalypses in The English Assassin, and diverse other happenings. A "romance of entropy" (so the sub-title) indeed. Set up in four "Shots", the novel progresses in predictably unpredictable fashion. Jerry finds himself at the center of things, valuable but also dangerous to those who take him on.
       The world isn't faring well, degrading before the reader's eyes. There is conflict all around -- the Cossacks are moving across Europe, for example, as the world regresses. Even London is near collapse.
       Two characters note:

"(...) these are pragmatic times."
"And we agreed we wanted no part of them."
       But it is not that easy to avoid them.
       Besides apocalyptic episodes, torture, and warfare there is also comical relief -- especially in the form of Jerry's mum, Mrs. Cornelius. The cast of characters also includes the usual familiars. Brother Frank is up to little good, but at least sister Catherine is physically quite fit (though she has gone astray in other ways). There is also Bishop Beesley, Professor Hira, and, of course, Miss Brunner, among many other favourites.
       There are shootings, deaths, odd alliances, attempts to achieve world domination. At the end, Catherine's final words are: "Goodbye, England." The details in the novel are Moorcock's invention, wild and apparently far-fetched, but the meaning is simple: this civilization, this England (and London, especially) is done for. It is his requiem for it.
       The English Assassin is the only one of the four titles in which (at least in the 1977 Avon collection, The Cornelius Chronicles) Moorcock emphasizes its position and place as part of a greater whole, calling it "the third novel in a tetralogy about Jerry Cornelius and his times." Perhaps more than the others it needs to be seen in this larger context, considered in conjunction with the others. It is an unusual novel, and it does stand a bit wobbly on its own. But within the Cornelius-sequence it certainly fits well.
       Moorcock writes well here, and though the storylines shift and fade (it is a "romance of entropy", after all) it does work quite well as an adventure-action saga as well. A curious, often entertaining work, nicely presented.

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The Cornelius Quartet: Michael Moorcock: Other books by Michael Moorcock under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Michael Moorcock is a prolific British author.

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