Books: Poetic loner who smells of fish blood

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by Tobias Hill

Faber pounds 9.99

Already acclaimed for his award-winning poems and short stories, Tobias Hill has less reason to crowd-please than most first novelists; nevertheless this is still a demanding book. It has a good hook. Someone is pushing women under Tube trains. Casimir, a Tube worker, is trying to find out why. Attracted to a young female crusty who resembles the previous victims, Casimir finds himself drawn into solving the mystery of the murderer's identity.

Casimir must have been a difficult character to inhabit. An uncharismatic loner who smells of fish blood, he has a limited range of emotions and behaves eccentrically throughout. It's hard to invest much intellectual energy in the main romance, especially as the book's one sex scene seems excessively brutal and neither character holds much appeal.

Technically, the novel is impressive. Hill alternates between first and third person, balancing the present-day thriller with poetic accounts of Casimir's childhood. The first-person sections are closer to Hill's previous work, and the deliberately primitive poetry of some of these passages works well. The setting, too, is a brave choice, given that many British debuts are marred by overenthusiastic accounts of the London Transport system. But, for me, the real achievement lies in the details: small, clever touches like the underground workers choosing Bar Rhumba as the best place to pull, and an appropriate appearance for the Kensington Hearth Club.

These sorts of observations prove the integrity of Hill's project, and throughout the novel you are left in no doubt that every scene has been meticulously researched, but it does seem odd that a writer of Hill's evident ability should turn in what is, in essence, a very straightforward thriller with little attempt to build up any suspense.

In many ways, seems like a moody European art-movie, constructed by someone with a love of thrillers but without the shamelessness and guile to successfully put one together. The climax is especially disappointing, given that throughout the book Hill leads us to expect something more than a stock B-movie ending. The novel could definitely have benefited from Hill putting as much work into the plot as he has into the observation. There are also problems with the dialogue. This is acceptable with the monosyllabic protagonist, but the other characters are just not convincing, sounding like sullen stereotypes deliberately brought in to increase the glum mood.

Hill has written previously about poetry being his first love, and that he writes fiction to pay for the poetry and journalism to pay for the fiction. This seems a very classical hierarchy, and it seems safe to assume that Hill does not feel the same love for the novel as a genre that he does for poetry. This is borne out by his failure to connect his clearly well-crafted writing to an entertaining plot.

There is, of course, no doubt that Hill is among the most noticeable talents of his generation, and given that this is a self-consciously "left- handed" exercise, it's probably best to view this novel as a palate-cleanser before the next volume of verse, and file it alongside other Faber experiments such as Dennis Potter's Ticket to Ride or Harold Pinter's The Dwarfs.