For many literary writers, the mystery about mystery novels is why their purportedly formulaic structures, simplified motivations, credibility-stretching twists and over-tidy resolutions find greater readership than their own more full-bodied works. And thence they have a go at the genre, with predictably distinctive results. In Gilbert Adair’s the author did it. In Georges Perec’s the language did it. In Patrick Modiano’s the ‘who’ would’ve done it, if there’d been any ‘who’ in the first place. So, on finding that this author is the ex-editor of Reality Street, we’re basically not expecting Miss Marple.
Phidias Peralta has left London in nebulous circumstances and repaired to the coast – between quaint Deadhurst and down-at-heel Deadman’s Beach – to relaunch his private investigator business. His first case looks straightforward enough: a ninety-year-old woman who vanished suddenly a year before. Her family are looking for ‘closure’. Uh-oh; not in a novel like this. Is the CCTV footage all it seems? Have the police given up too readily? Did she wander into the ‘grey area’ of the Dead Level marshes? The trail is cold by now. And meanwhile, two sinister-looking men from London have been seen around, asking for him…
Phidias himself is a terrific character, a born-to-it detective whose eye for detail enriches the descriptions of the locality and whose over-the-top diction and intellectuality bring to mind a Doctor Who or a Holmes. He can’t bear to use the first-person singular in his narrations (though, disappointingly, he speaks and writes email with it), giving them the feel of a parodic scientific report. His assistant Lucy fulfils the more human, Watson-ish role, with a conventional voice anchored in ordinary family concerns. A third format consists of dialogue presented without speech-tags or other primary narrative, as if taped; this kind of stylistic spotlighting felt odd at first, but I did quickly get used to it. It helps that the prose is as adept and fluent as you’d expect. (The only poor writing in the book, I’d say, is on the blurb, which drastically undersells its contents.)
Storywise, some scenes ‒ an early-morning trip with the local trawlermen, an extraordinary model railway ‒ earn their place thematically (or from their intrinsic interest) rather than in terms of direct function. Nonetheless the tension builds up nicely and the late-night industrial park (where homeless Phidias is sleeping) becomes suitably spooky. In fact, at one point, I worried that the book was going to use that genre-twist cop-out where the ‘explanation’ for the crime is a supernatural one. Or that the epistemological riffs were preparing to camouflage some dodgy plot-moves. But the weirdnesses stay more or less under control and the denouement is, instead, revealingly bitter in the manner of, say, Leonardo Sciascia’s novels. I hope Phidias isn’t dead, though: I found myself, like any good crime reader, wanting another in the series, where more of his enigmatic background might get revealed, and the enjoyable partnership between him, Lucy and her bright and comic son can confront a new impossible brain-twister.
Guy Russell 18th November 2020