Bear with me for a minute – you’re not in the wrong review, I promise.
Holiday reading = crime fiction and so I recently read the novel that T.S Eliot proclaimed “the first and the best detective novel” – Wilkie Collin’s The Moonstone. A review may be forthcoming at a later date, so I’ll reveal only that I did find myself thinking many times “it doesn’t half go on a bit”. I couldn’t agree more with John Sutherland’s introductory remarks in the OUP classics edition: “For readers habituated to the sophistication of late twentieth-century detective fiction, The Moonstone’s gimmicks are easily anticipated without any forbidden peaks at the novel’s last pages. Apart from the fact that the butler, Betteredge, did not do it, there is little in the novel to astonish the modern aficionado.”
Aficionado seems somewhat over the top for a self-assessment but I do take his point. Detective fiction has become much more sophisticated since publication of The Moonstone, a journey which has engendered quite a few traditions. The enjoyment in reading The Existential Detective, apart from the strong plot, is watching Thompson paying homage to, subverting and progressing said traditions at the same time. For example:
1) Name the detective after a poet. Think of Chandler’s Marlowe and Allingham’s Campion. Tick. William Blake, poet and visionary. Play with this a little more and let the contemporary detective suffer from visions/delusions. It gives Thompson all the prompts she needs to blur the lines between fact and fiction, something she excels at as I know from my previous outings.
2) Thinking Chandler and crime noir:
2a) Seedy setting, tick. Although I’m not sure that Edinburgh’s Portobello area will thank Thompson for this.
2b) Femmes fatales, tick. Although the fatale nature of the prostitutes and the cabaret singer is more passive-aggressive than seductive.
2c) A private investigator not afraid to err on the wrong side of the law. BIG tick. Cannot reveal but interestingly it raises the same question regarding guilt as Collins posed in The Moonstone. When is one really guilty?
3) Detectives are anti-social loners with problems of their own. Tick. Private investigator William Blake is divorced and distinctly anti-social. He has problems too. The subversion is that his problems are definitely bigger than those of his clients and in a circular twist (which I’ve never seen before) is that he ends up investigating his own problems!
Now I saw that coming but not the final resolution and that’s get a GIGANTIC tick from me.
Add another tick for the atmosphere of foreboding decadence, created through the recurring leitmotiv of E T A Hoffmann’s The Sandman and a poem by the real William Blake, The Sick Rose.
Another for encapsulating the above within a very unsettling modern plot involving artificial intelligence, the Russian mafia and child abduction.
All this captured in only 166 pages of Thompson’s signature clear concise prose. It never felt rushed even as I raced through it, enjoying the story and relishing the unwrapping of its many layers. I can imagine John Sutherland recognising that there is plenty in this novel to astonish the modern crime aficionado.