One snowy night, when Leonard Lessing's combo fails to arrive for a gig, the English jazz saxophonist is forced to take the stage alone. Without rhythm accompaniment, without fill-ins, without preparation, he starts playing, fluffs a note, then spins out an extended set of solos that work off the fluff. About to enter a cab at the end of the evening, an attractive woman leans on his arm and tells him, "Truly valiant ... you know, taking risks. That was pure valiance."

But what is valor (or "valiance")? Jim Crace's protagonist in this probing and suspenseful novel appears to be frightened of almost everything, most notably the cooling affections of his wife, the same woman who praised him nine years earlier. How he longs to be valiant, the kind of man who would strike a blow and win love! He fantasizes about partisan heroism in the Spanish Civil War, yet in the here and now, lets down all around him.

Eighteen years earlier, Lessing, then Brother Leon, was a hesitant conspirator in AmBush, a plot to disrupt a Bush speaking event in Austin. (The novel is set in 2024.) While both of his comrades are arrested and jailed, Leonard fails to protest and hightails it back to England with his tenor sax. Yet Crace puts Leonard's reluctance to act under the microscope and it looks very much like discretion. The Bush here was Laura, the event a pitch for libraries, and the jailed colleagues, Max and Nadia, a pair of narcissistic creeps. Valor by itself, Crace seems to say, is not enough. Nevertheless, Leonard is haunted by his failure then, and by many since.

Back in 2024, Max has taken hostages in a suburban London house and, typically, Leonard is fascinated and frightened. Much of the plot of this spare and intense novel involves his behind-the-scenes machinations to bring the hostage situation to a close without having his wife find out.

Crace should have a larger reputation. His fictional worlds are provocative. "Quarantine" (1999), for instance, examines the little community of pilgrims fasting in the desert along with Jesus, and "The Pesthouse" (2007) is a less fanciful version of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." In "All That Follows," as in his other novels, Crace's prose has an elegant believability to it. There is a present-tense immediacy to how Leonard experiences the world, and the six-page description of the jazz solo is dazzling: the thoughts of an artist in the midst of creation. Truly valiant!

Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.