Book of a lifetime: Mystery Story, By David Pirie


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The Independent Culture

I was attracted to Mystery Story by its title and jacket. The photographic cover, with its half-buried clues (stiletto, photo of woman, Duke of Wellington £5 note), appealed to me and the title seemed pleasingly straightforward and self-aware.

Mystery Story takes place in an alternative contemporary Britain (it was published in 1980) with its white defence leagues, coalition government and Commission on Urban Violence (CURV). The narrator, a writer and journalist, spending Christmas alone in London, hears news that police in Weston, Staffordshire, are searching for 32-year-old Johanna Parver after the discovery of her clothes by the side of the road. Since the missing woman is an ex-girlfriend of the narrator's, he's soon driving out of London.

Weston is a new town, with a CURV-led programme of curfews and resulting low crime figures. After the narrator's arrival, a mutilated corpse is found. The narrator turns snooper. He slips into Johanna's former house, now with new owners, where he thinks he hears voices discussing Johanna, but it's just the television. The police, initially gruff and unforthcoming, become earnest and obliging. "It suddenly seemed to me… that I wasn't dealing with a policeman at all, but with a rather skilled professional actor."

Johanna, it is revealed, previously posed as Bree Daniels, a name familiar to anyone who has seen Jane Fonda in Klute. No one is who they seem. Later, sporting a head wound, the narrator invents a persona for himself. "I was a garage mechanic who had been hurt in a small accident… It gave me a role."

The atmosphere of paranoia and fear, as the narrator goes from hunter to hunted, is masterfully built up. The set pieces – car chase, deadly night-train hide-and-seek, knife fight on a rollercoaster – are remarkable. On the train, the narrator considers his options: "The question I had to face now was what was going to happen next." I love the possibility that this might reflect the author's modus operandi, matching my own.

Mystery Story, long out of print, is Pirie's first novel. It says so on the flyleaf. I've lost count of the number of people I've lent my copy to. I had to buy another before I could write this piece. Reading it for the third time, I realise that a bit of business with a £5 note in my new novel might have been subconsciously borrowed from it. So imagine my bewilderment when in 2001 Century published David Pirie's The Patient's Eyes: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes and wrote on the jacket, "This is his first novel".

Nicholas Royle's novel 'First Novel' is published by Jonathan Cape