20 April 2016

BOTM: Neil Jordan's 'The Drowned Detective'

Our April 2016 Book of the Month: The Drowned Detective.

The author: writer and film-maker Neil Jordan.

The genre: private detective / psychological / supernatural.

The time: unspecified, probably present day (there are Google Maps and mobiles).

The place: also unspecified, a central European city in an escalating political crisis during a hot and humid summer. It feels like Budapest yet the locals seem to speak Romanian.

When the action briefly leaves the city for a remote village, we are told: "One could imagine Zhukov's tanks ploughing through it, years ago. And Putin's, doing the same, some day soon."

The central character: Jonathan, a world-weary ex-pat from England who is consumed by his work as a PI, while his marriage is on the rocks after his wife's one-night stand.

The plot: begins as a conventional detective tale as Jonathan and his assistants Frank and Istvan - both former Special Services types like him - chase after adulterous politicians and bootleg goods in the local markets. But it soon becomes a surreal, supernatural nightmare.
An elderly couple give Jonathan a faded photo of their daughter, missing for two decades. The little girl would have been the same age when she vanished as his own daughter Jenny is now, and Jonathan is compelled to find her.  
One night soon after taking on the missing person case, as he walks across the bridge spanning the river that divides the city, Jonathan encounters a young woman crouched at the foot of a stone angel. 
She suddenly jumps into the icy waters below. Without thinking, he leaps after her, and is soon haunted by her ghostly world of confusion, coincidence and intrigue.
Why we liked? The filmic, beautifully written prose, the motif of Bach's cello suites, the atmospheric portrait of Mitteleuropa in constant turmoil, with running street battles between the cops and faceless neo-fascists (in black balaclavas) and Pussy Riot-style protestors (in brightly coloured balaclavas).

There are deft characterisations, such as Jonathan's daughter Jenny with her imaginary friends (one of them lactose intolerant), and Gertrude, a clairvoyant who "looked like an ageing Marlene Dietrich and she knew it", yet who despite her obvious psychic powers has no problem in calling herself a charlatan.

Anything we didn't like? The dialogue has no quotation marks. It may be deliberate, to blur the line between external dialogue and internal thought and add to the hallucinatory atmosphere of the decaying city, but we found it too confusing and annoying at times.

Any spoilers? Without spoiling the ending, the novel is a noirish detective tale that deftly switches to a ghost story with a fairytale-like, Kafkaesque logic. In that sense it's far more engaging and convincing than, say, (SPOILER ALERT) the vampire twist in the second half of Douglas Kennedy's The Woman in the Fifth.

The publishers: Bloomsbury.