The Key of the Tower By Gilbert Adair, Secker & Warburg, $220 A criminal who only reads Proust and who quotes at tedious length from a frayed and curling volume of Sodom and Gomorrah is what one might expect from Gilbert Adair. From a writer whose work has been compared favourably with Jean Cocteau, Vladimir Nabokov and Thomas Mann, and ranges through non-fiction and acclaimed novels to children's stories - sequels to Peter Pan and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, no less - a mere thriller would surely be disappointing. But Adair does not disappoint with The Key of the Tower, although it is essentially a straightforward thriller which, despite its twists, is not consistently thrilling. It is, however, an easy, unchallenging and entertaining read with sufficient unexpected developments to maintain momentum and reader interest. It begins on - what else but? - a dark and stormy night on which the British narrator, Guy Lantern, driving through Brittany in his Mini en route to a holiday in the ancient coastal town of St Malo, is forced to a sudden halt by a tree which, struck by lightning, falls across the road in front of him. As a shocked Lantern stands in front of the massive trunk, seeking solace in nicotine, a silver Rolls-Royce pulls up on the other side of the tree. Its owner, Jean-Marc Cheret, a French art consultant, has urgent business in England, but the road is impassable. He proposes the pair swap cars, then meet at his St Malo villa on his return in a few days, each to reclaim his rightful vehicle. Lantern is dubious, but it is a neat solution and, after all, he is surely on the winning end of the bargain. Naturally, all will not go smoothly. Lantern soon decides the holiday is a mistake. We discover he is on medication and nightly relives a car crash in which a woman dies. The stealing of the car is the last straw, and Lantern follows and confronts the thief, only to find he is Cheret's business partner and has driven the vehicle to Cheret's home. The mystery hangs on why the car was taken. Adair's publishers claim in their flyleaf summary that this plot would be 'both impossible and unjust' to summarise, given the surprises it has in store for the reader. The former is undoubtedly an exaggeration: for all its surprises, the plot is essentially straightforward. It hinges on a 17th-century work of art which several want to find, a romantic interest in the form of Cheret's neglected wife Beatrice, and even a car chase along the Brittany coast. Of course, this being Adair, this all happens with great flair, plenty of literary allusions and dry wit. And the plot twists are clever. But the characters, apart from Lantern, are little more than cardboard cut-outs. The Key of the Tower is essentially a rather upmarket mystery story, one quickly read and as quickly forgotten.