Nick Harkaway's fiction grapples with the curious power of genre fiction's cheap, potent end, from the post-apocalyptic kung fu of "The Gone-Away World" to the clockwork bees and London gangsters of "Angelmaker." His third novel, "Tigerman," sets the familiar elements of gaudy old superhero comic books — utility belts, kid sidekicks, secret identities — against the background of the British empire's dying gasp.
That gasp is the "Discharge Clouds" of dangerous gases erupting from beneath the former British territory of Mancreu, a lawless little island in the Arabian Sea that's scheduled for imminent destruction. Mancreu's harbor hosts a "Black Fleet" of ships that are up to no good, and the semi-official duty of Tigerman's buttoned-up, burned-out Bruce Wayne type, a British military man named Lester Ferris, is to look the other way.
Ferris is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, now serving as the Brevet-Consul to Mancreu; his job is to be visibly British and not make waves of any kind. In the course of his duties he has befriended and feels vaguely paternal impulses toward a local boy of about 12 years obsessed with comic books. He's generally referred to only as "the boy," although he pointedly calls himself "Robin" once.
As tends to happen in superhero stories, violence stirs the hero to action. Gunmen raid a cafe where Ferris and the boy are hanging out and kill the owner. That leads, through various contrivances, to Ferris deciding to put on a mask and a tiger emblem to scare the bejesus out of a handful of unsavory types, abetted by the kid.
The exploits of "Tigerman," preserved on video, make the mysterious masked man a hero of Mancreu's people; they also end up getting Ferris in much deeper danger than he imagined.
What Harkaway is doing here is formally a clever variation on the superhero tropes: the mild-mannered gentleman, paralyzed and compromised by duty, who disguises himself to become a hero of absolute morality in an anarchic land; the social problem that can be solved by nonlethally beating up some terrible people. And all of this is overshadowed by the imminent catastrophe of the setting.
Soon, Harkaway keeps reminding us, Mancreu will be reduced to ash, making heroism there meaningless. When its inhabitants move away, it's a capitalized "Leaving," in which they ceremonially burn everything they can't take with them. The local motto seems to be "kswah swah": "what happens, happens" (i.e. que sera, sera).
The true victory that Tigerman is pursuing, then, has to be another superhero trope: the lonely Batman becoming a father to an orphaned Robin. The boy, though, may not actually lack a parent, and almost everything about him is mysterious until it's all spelled out at once. This is one of those novels whose plot could be radically truncated with a single direct conversation or indeed by its protagonist applying his brilliant deductive skills to something that's concerned him for ages.
As smartly conceived and gorgeously written as "Tigerman" is, its failures are frustrating. Ferris is a splendid wreck of a character, but nearly everyone else is a broad caricature: there's the flirtatious Japanese xenobiologist, the persistent ex-BBC journalist, and so forth. And the kid, whose unrelenting belief in Ferris convinces him that dressing up as a superhero and fighting crime is a "onehunnerten pro cent thirteen thirty seven" idea in the real world, is a grab-bag of writerly tics that never quite hang together. The boy's English is self-taught, apparently mostly from reading Reddit ("Left! No, totally the other left! Hashtag: SATNAVFAIL! Zomg!"), although sometimes he talks like an Ernest Hemingway narrator: "I have seen them burn and fall, and sometimes they are forced down. But I have never seen one come down at the end of its flight. They are always too far."
That said, Harkaway's language can be wonderfully rich, as when he describes the consul's decaying residency: "The dry season's dust had stuck to the paint and left the building veined and tinted like a giant cheese. The gardeners had packed up and gone with the diplomats, taking their ladders and their shears and their green aprons from Keen & Ryle of Chichester. The veinous Gorgonzola manse was fossilised, standing alone behind the bare earth that had been the rose gardens."
His action scenes, though, are messier. When Tigerman strikes, a lot of violent things happen quickly — Harkaway tries to ape the chaos of a gaudy superhero fight scene — but tracking complicated, simultaneous physical movement is the forte of drawings and not of prose, especially Harkaway's prose. So it's a disappointment that the book's final act shifts its focus from Ferris' relationship with the boy and the island to thrillerish set-pieces whose coincidences and revelations are often ridiculous. A story about the moral murk that empire leaves behind deserves better than the easy bombast of an adventure story for boys.
Wolk is the author of "Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean."
Alfred A. Knopf: 352 pp., $26.95