In today’s cultural climate a novel called ‘The Existential Detective’ could be said to have a double handicap in reaching a readership before it begins. Those who are set against the genre of crime fiction will see the word ‘detective’ and decide it’s not for them, similarly the term ‘existential’ puts many people in fear that they’re going to encounter some pseudo-intellectual enquiry (I’m always fascinated by anything to do with existentialism, so maybe those people have a point). I want to stress to you that if you hold either of those beliefs then you are going to miss out.
Actually both those presumptions are partly correct. Alice Thompson’s fifth novel is a whodunit as well as a why do it. It also shows that Thompson has a complete understanding not only of the detective genre, but also of a wider literary tradition. There are references to William Blake, ‘The Magic Flute’, James Hogg and Robert Louis Stevenson, and although set in Edinburgh’s Portobello it has the feel of a landscape where the odd and off-kilter are everyday; more ‘Twin Peaks’ than Firth of Forth.
The titular detective is William Blake, who is asked to investigate a missing person and finds that he is being deliberately deceived from the beginning, yet something more than professional pride keeps him searching for the absent Louise. What unfolds is anything but a simple tale of hide and seek. ‘The Existential Detective’ examines dreams, memory and perception, often roaming into the surreal and erotic as Blake finds himself visiting nightclubs, amusement arcades, brothels and galleries increasingly confused as to what his motives may be.
It is the novel’s unpredictable nature, as well as Thompson’s natural ability to relay what could have been a baffling story, that makes this one of the most interesting novels of recent years. The setting is familiar and everyday, yet strange enough to unsettle. There is a cast of characters that add to the atmosphere including an amoral scientist, some private dancers, a blind man with second sight and teenage tearaways who are sadly older than their years. Thompson has the ability to create vivid portrayals in a few pages, and although some of the cast only appear in short bursts, they leave lasting impressions and are integral to the mystery that unfolds.
There is another reason that I was drawn towards the work of Alice Thompson. In the 1980s she was a member of The Woodentops (playing keyboards alongside the mighty Rolo McGinty), a post-punk band who made ‘Giant’, one of the best records of that decade. Here she is, and here they are, on kids TV doing ‘Love Affair with Everyday Living’:
As ‘The Existential Detective’ draws to a close an already dark tale becomes pitch black as Blake starts to lose a grip on reality, or at least is led to believe this is the case. As he realises that there is no one he can trust any more, even those closest to him, so he eventually begins to doubt himself. Readers begin to realise that a terrible truth is about to be revealed just as he does, although Thompson never gives it all away until the final pages.
There seems to be a battle, an unnecessary one in my opinion, between genre fiction and literary fiction. These distinctions are often created for the market and end up underselling, at least in terms of critical acclaim, many impressive writers. That’s fine if it gets people to read more books, but if it causes certain commentators, and therefore readers, to dismiss some of our finest writers of fiction, such as Louise Welsh and Ian Banks, as they believe their writing is of less literary worth, then not only are those writers being done a disservice, but so are potential readers. Alice Thompson is a great writer and to attempt to categorise her as simply a writer of crime is simply criminal.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next Month’s Novel: I don’t want to make any assumptions, but if you haven’t read any writing by Agnes Owens then you are in for such a treat. Owens, perhaps alongside Jeff Torrington, is often the forgotten party of the Hobsbaum group of writers who came to prominence in the 1980s and whose members include Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Liz Lochhead and Tom Leonard.
The sidelining of Owens is one of the more baffling episodes in recent Scottish writing as there are few writers who manage to involve the reader so completely in the absurdity that often passes for everyday life. ‘Bad Attitudes’ is deceptive as you don’t realise how it is affecting you while you read it. It is only once you have finished that you realise that you have a better understanding of the human condition than you had before you opened the cover.
- Agnes Owens Bad Attitudes (Dec)
- Rodge Glass No Fireworks (Jan)
- Toni Davidson Scar Culture (Feb)
- John Burnside The Devil’s Footprints (Mar)
- Stuart David Nalda Said (Apr)