Are novels supposed to make us feel elated? Or is it acceptable to feel guilty and soiled, identifying with a character who colludes in the murder of a woman after some sordid group sex? If you'd rather avoid the second option, steer clear of Neil Cross's Burial. Such is the author's insidious skill that we are ineluctably involved in the messy private life of Nathan, a rather sad loser, whether we like it or not.
We may feel queasy at the experience, but it's possible to argue (as Cross could, in defence of his scarifying, disturbing novel) that the reader might sense a certain scrubbed-with-a-brush scourging after reading Burial – not necessarily pleasant, but energising. As in such previous books as Holloway Falls, Cross marries literary values to the page-turning crime narrative. No flourishes here: everything is pared to the bone.
Nathan, stifled in a radio-journalism job and in the last phases of a disintegrating relationship, attends a party given by his right-wing radio-host boss, and meets the slightly deranged Bob. After some ill-advised, cocaine-fuelled three-way sex with Bob and a stoned young girl, Elise, in a car, Elise ends up dead. Bob was the last person in the car with her. The traumatised Nathan is persuaded to bury the body, and the death goes unsolved. Nathan endures agonies of guilt, until Bob reappears and tells him that the woods in which they buried Elise are about to be dug up for a housing estate. Nathan is soon making one catastrophic decision after another, with (inevitably) a macabre outcome.
It's easier for an author to invite identification when a protagonist has attractive moral or physical qualities, but a more complex achievement to put us inside the skin of a no-hoper like Nathan. That's what Cross does. When Nathan initiates a relationship with the unknowing, damaged sister of the girl in whose death he is implicated, the reader is squirming – both at his misjudgement, and in fervent hope that he won't be found out. It is a skill congruent with that of Hitchcock: we want Anthony Perkins to clean up that mess mother has left in the shower before the police arrive.
There are some readers who won't thank Cross for taking them into such moral terra incognita, but even those feeling a little grubby won't be able to deny the author's sheer mastery of his unsettling task.