Books: Darkness legible

Kim Newman enjoys an eerie voyage into blindness
A DISTINGUISHED if blustering novelist, a country recluse since an accident which rendered him not just blind but eyeless, advertises in the Times for an amanuensis to help him word-process a memoir. Along comes John Ryder, who describes himself as reasonably presentable and reveals the knack for observation necessary to help out with the creation of the book.

However, in classic suspense mode, small things are out of place: cut off from the rest of the world, the novelist - Paul - has to accept John's word about many things, from stained ties through the presence of a new statue of Princess Diana on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square, to the identity of the current Prime Minister. Gradually, it emerges that Paul is more in the dark even than he thought, and that John may have some long-festering grudge which will lead him to a cruel revenge.

Gilbert Adair's novel has an almost cinematic, even radio-play, sense of suspense (the name John Ryder is taken from the Rutger Hauer character in the film The Hitcher), but plays tricks only possible on the page. Aside from some italicised diary entries, which at first make you suspect Faber of neglecting to proof-read the novel but are actually just as the author intended, the whole book unfolds without description, inner monologue or any of the usual apparatus of novelistic texture.

What we get is transcribed dialogue, overwhelmingly between two characters - though a cheerful housekeeper, a soliciting Conservative candidate and a couple of deferential policemen show up at the cottage, a little like refugees from The Mouse Trap or even The Real Inspector Hound. The pair fence around each other, concealing as much as they reveal, spinning off descriptions we (and they) have to take on trust or can choose to dismiss as fabrications.

Primarily a thriller, A Closed Book contains a great deal of discussion about the literary process itself (evoking perhaps the Stephen King of Misery) and the frustrating business of dictating to a typist at the word processor keyboard, taking on trust that the text is being set down exactly as spoken. In true intertextual style, the writer character - who is also, in several senses, a reader - muses on the literary tactics adopted by his own creator.

If the revelation of motive here is a touch overfamiliar, hinging on a past abuse that crops up rather too often in mysteries these days, the finale - which sends the reader scurrying back through the book to look again at key passages in order to puzzle out just what is likely to happen after the last page - is deliciously apt and unsettling.

Kim Newman's latest novel is `Life's Lottery' (Simon & Schuster)

A Closed Book

by Gilbert Adair

Faber & Faber, pounds 9.99, 258pp