Books: High Noon for the zombies of Wardour St

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The Independent Culture
Soho Black

by Christopher Fowler Warner Books pounds 8.99

Most of the action of is set in what Christopher Fowler is pleased to call London's creative square mile, by which he means the network of film production and distribution, and the advertising and music industry executives who work and play there. Fowler's day job is running a film production company, and his central character, Richard Tyler, also works in that industry.

Tyler is a nice guy in a cut-throat world. His partner Berry has kept him around because of his encyclopaedic knowledge of movies, but his habit of telling wannabe writer-directors that their pet project is a non-starter has exhausted Berry's patience, and Richard is to be fired at the end of the week. Then he has a heart attack and dies. You might expect this to put a crimp in his style, but on the contrary, he returns to the fray with unexpected vitality. "Like Sunset Boulevard," he remarks at the outset, "this is a tale narrated by a corpse." Many writers use film-culture as a frame of reference, but for once this device is justified.

As an animated corpse with no future prospects, Richard finds it much easier to take charge of his life. He finds being dead liberating, and he ruthlessly sets about correcting the world and paying it back for its slights. In particular he arranges a future for Berry, for his ex- girlfriend and for his autistic son, which depends on his pushing a handful of movie proposals into production before his body decomposes. Although Fowler doesn't make the connection explicitly, this prospect of ultimate corruption acts like the clock in High Noon, adding dramatic tension by reminding us that time is short, and we get detailed bulletins of the disgusting processes which are taking place in Tyler's body. Fowler takes gleeful pains in tracking the course of anatomical decay from the point of view of the corpse, and as the days wear on Tyler's body wears off.

Meanwhile: an Australian biochemist is found dead in Tottenham Court Road tube station, and a new and terrible recreational drug is causing havoc on the streets of Soho. Hot on the case are Fowler's superannuated detectives, Bryant and May, whom we met before in Rune and Darkest Day. Bryant and May are the Met's trouble-shooters for the weird and the unnatural - a sort of Ealing comedy X-Files team, to be played by Alastair Sim and Michael Redgrave perhaps. As they investigate, a skein of Soho underworld is unravelled involving a man with a mysterious and sinister power to charm, comic hoodlums, and an ecdysiast of supernatural abilities, which is to say a stripper, albeit an unusually good one. This is also the world of power-lunches, of runners who traffic drugs as they deliver films, of film-editing sessions that last all night, fuelled by cocaine, and segue straight into the working breakfast. On a lighter note, Soho is an area steeped in history, and Fowler knows it like the back of his hand.

Strictly speaking there are two more or less distinct storylines here - the detective yarn and the zombie romp - but Fowler meshes them together with such assurance and brio that we are inclined to accept the interweaving of his plots at face value. The writing is as ever fluid and pacey, the characterisation deft, and the plots fresh and ingenious. It is hard to imagine Fowler topping his wonderful Spanky, but in he is playing to his strengths, and the book is wholly enjoyable.