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The Existential Detective, By Alice Thompson
An uncanny mix of art and science
Wednesday 14 July 2010
It was the English Surrealist Gordon Onslow Ford who coined the expression Chirico City, thereby creating a single imaginary home for the near-identical streets and squares painted by fellow artist Giorgio de Chirico. The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, a typically mysterious work by De Chirico, appears on the cover of Alice Thompson's new novel.
Thompson has been working her way through the Surrealists. The jacket of her first novel, Justine (1996), featured Max Ernst's The Robing of the Bride. Pandora's Box (1998) was adorned by Paul Delvaux's The Last Carriage; and The Falconer (2008) by Rene Magritte's Deep Waters. The oneiric atmosphere of the Delvaux cover was a perfect match for Pandora's Box, a bewitchingly dreamlike detective story. As for The Falconer, certain details of cover and text correspond so closely that it's possible the Magritte image was less an illustration and more a prompt for the novel: an uncanny, Freudian tale of identity and mythical beasts.
If you can have degrees of uncanniness, The Existential Detective is Thompson's uncanniest – and best – novel yet. Private detective William Blake is hired by an eccentric scientist to find his missing wife, Louise, who may have lost her memory. Just as Freud's theory of the Uncanny insists that a man wandering around lost will repeatedly fetch up in the red-light district, Will's search takes him to a brothel and to a nightclub, where he develops a sexual obsession with a singer.
He experiences visions and encounters a blind man on the beach. There are coincidences, doubles, machines that may be intelligent, and a number of references to the Sandman. Have I already mentioned Will's sense of déjà vu? But at no point do you picture Thompson with Freud's essay in one hand and a pen in the other, ticking off elements of the Uncanny. Her novel is more organic than that, her storytelling natural and fluid, but never predictable.
This superb novel's Portobello setting, on the coast close to Edinburgh, is authentic and convincing. But the action surely takes place simultaneously a long way from the Firth of Forth, among the ominous shadows and vanishing perspectives of Chirico City.
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