Murder for the masses

DARK SPECTRE by Michael Dibdin, Faber pounds 14.99
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THIS rip-roaring, blood-drenched thriller establishes Michael Dibdin as the Cecil B De Mille of crime writing. Not because it has an especially epic quality, or any plum parts for an ageing Charlton Heston, but because only someone like de Mille would dream of populating such a story with so huge a cast of characters.

The premise is simple. Across America all sorts of people are getting bumped off. Victims range from a 15-month baby to a wheelchair-bound 67- year-old and a couple of objectionable teenage nintendo players who probably had it coming it in the first place. There is no obvious connection between the murderees, and the crimes appear, on the face of it, random and motiveless.

While various different detectives in various different towns struggle to get to grips with the mystery, Dibdin unfolds a parallel narrative involving a group of Waco-esque religious oddballs on a remote island in the Pacific North West. The latter - a motley collection of reconstructed hippies and brain-fried acid-heads - are viewed through the suspicious eyes of nerdy depressive Phil, who joined the group after the deaths of his wife and son, and soon comes to realise that their obsession with the poet William Blake involves something altogether more sinister than a predilection for advanced literary criticism.

Murder investigation and spaced-out mysto-cult eventually collide with each other, of course, with lots of romance and shoot-outs and a strangely half-hearted attempt to tie the whole thing in with the long-lost Secret of the Templars.

This is crime writing with a cast of thousands. The novel positively teems with characters, all jostling for space like overweight coy carp in an undersized pond. Just look at the cops - Kimo Robinson, Alex Mitchell, Kristine Kjarstad, Steve Warren, Fred Polson, Lamont Wingate, Charlie Freedman, Eileen McCann, Darrell Griffiths, Pete Green, and Lorne Fowler. And thats just for starters. Then there are the baddies - Dave and Mark and Russ and Dale and Pat and Melissa and Sam, to name but a few. And the corpses - at least one every ten pages, of every conceivable size, weight, sex, age and ethnic grouping. And the lawyers and the firemen and the children and the relatives and the neighbours. And that's before you even start thinking about Phil, the protagonist, and his tough but nonetheless extremely womanly love-interest, Andrea.

It's great to meet new people, but the overall effect is swamping. Characters come and go in a bewildering pageant. Take Kristine Kjarstad, the tough but nonetheless extremely womanly detective who spearheads the murder investigation. Single mother, astute officer, crafty emotional manipulator - here, potentially, is a winning creation. Yet for all her narrative importance she only crops up intermittently, and then is delineated in terms that seem too casual: "One Saturday evening in May Kristine Kjarstad got back from dinner at Ray's boathouse with a couple of gay friends and a woman called Betty whose sister had just had an operation for cancer..."

As with characters so with ideas. Dibdin floods his story with a rich array of interesting conceits, but follows few of them through. Themes are introduced and then dropped, tensions set up and then abandoned without resolution. At one point it looks as if Phil is to be charged with murder. The odds are stacked against him. Excitement builds. We know he's innocent, but the cops don't. How can he make them understand? What will happen to him? Well, actually he gets set free without too much bother.

Anticlimaxes come fast and furious; flirtations with medieval esoterica and literary exigesis seem gratuitous; there's not nearly enough sex. Which makes it all the more curious that this book should be such an excellent read. Lean, taut, fast-paced and exciting, it is, for all its faults, superb entertainment and quite unputdownable. Should make a great Hollywood blockbuster, although pity the poor sod who's got to cast it.