Nimrod's Shadow, By Chris Paling

An artful murder mystery
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The Independent Culture

The great Victorian novelist Wilkie Collins had a gift for creating vulnerable heroines trapped in dark, occasionally nightmarish plots.

His spirit lives on in this excellent novel by Chris Paling, featuring the topically named Samantha, a young and withdrawn office assistant. Somehow becoming caught up with theft, violent death, kidnapping and final imprisonment, she finds she is also having the time of her life.

Her story runs in parallel with the adventures of a poor but brilliant artist named Reilly, a hundred years ago, who is falsely accused of murdering the only critic who took any interest in his paintings. Seeing one of these in a failing gallery, Samantha becomes convinced he is trying to communicate with her. By the time their individual tales reach their end, it seems as if she may have been right.

An excitingly plotted adult novel that is neither a detective nor a spy story is as unfashionable today as it is welcome. Those who do try it too often finish either by flogging a dying horse as succeeding chapters stumble and flag after a flurry of initial excitement or else get trapped in an increasingly tedious formula. Paling surmounts such problems by giving the impression that he too has no real idea about what is going to happen next. This means there is some meandering from one chapter to another, but in the hands of such an experienced novelist this continuous unpredictability serves to make things even more interesting.

He also creates characters that are real people rather than handy vehicles for the main action. Reilly is a true melancholic who only comes to life when painting, with plenty of detail included about his favourite tempera technique, involving egg yolk mixed with pigment paste. Samantha hides a delicate spirit in a weighty body. Her alienation from her age group is balanced by her commitment to Reilly and his paintings.

The Nimrod of the title is Reilly's stray dog, who holds the key to everything that happens. Preserved into the 21st century through taxidermy, he still manages to play a major role in Samantha's story. His hopeful and affectionate presence when alive softens a grim picture of poverty in Edwardian London as Reilly continues to fight against the odds, towards an ending happier than either he or his readers could ever have imagined.