Kissing the Beehive by Jonathan Carroll Gollancz, pounds 15.99
On the level of sheer sentence-construction and his pellucid prose, Jonathan Carroll is among the most purely pleasing writers of the decade. Yet his elegant, entrancing novels have real depths, as they present a series of reports from a world unique to its creator.

In this ninth novel, Carroll tackles a plot not dissimilar to that of his first, The Land of Laughs. Researching a book about a decades-old mystery, a writer-narrator is absorbed by the strangeness of a small town. While the protagonist of The Land of Laughs wrote a biography that magically brought its subject to life, Sam Bayer - the glib but appealing narrator of Kissing the Beehive - is in far less fantastical territory as he picks at the threads of an old murder.

As a teenager, Bayer discovered the body of Pauline Ostrova, at once the school slut and a near-genius. Pauline's boyfriend was convicted and has died in prison, but Bayer is not so sure he was guilty. Bayer wanders around Crane's View, New York, discovering that his formerly delinquent best friend is now Sheriff and that almost everyone has a motive either to remember the crime or want it forgotten.

In parallel, he is jolted into an affair with Veronica Lake, whose name suggests what an appealing but dangerous package she is: a gorgeous woman, devoted to Bayer's books, but whose untidy past comes out in frightening dollops that threaten to distract Bayer from his work. Surprisingly late in the day, Bayer realises that Veronica is exactly the woman Pauline would have been if she had grown up; but by then the relationship has soured, and Veronica seems a danger to Bayer and his apparently perfect daughter.

The obvious parallels with Twin Peaks, with Pauline as another avatar of Laura Palmer, are slightly misleading. David Lynch, for whom crime is always a portal to the supernatural, made a show more in the spirit of Carroll's earlier novels than of this one. For once, it does not include anything fantastic: no talking dogs, incarnated fairy-tale characters, bizarre curses or coffee-house gods. The finale is concerned with solving the case, presenting a surprise culprit and coping with the aftermath of the original crime and the many subsequent crimes, ranging from fresh murders to everyday betrayals and discourtesies, that have sprung from it.

As in his earlier novels, Carroll has the plot turn on his narrator - an apparently autobiographical character revealed as far less omniscient than his status suggests - and forces him to realise the flaws he has unwittingly exposed in his own account. Pauline, who is dead before the novel starts, is beyond help; but Bayer concentrates on her when he should be thinking about Veronica. This allows for the small-town, mystery-suspense plot to kink into wholly new, unexplored territory, which sets up a very moving, unsettling and tragic finish.

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