This is the fifth novel by Alice Thompson, a writer I have not encountered before (although I did once own The Woodentops debut album – Thompson was keyboard player in that group). The Existential Detective is a crime novel in which private investigator William Blake is hired to find a missing woman. The title of the novel, the fact that the main protagonist is named after Blake, and even the front cover – Giorgio de Chirico’s The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street – led me to expect a very different novel to that provided by Thompson. Instead of the abstract, perhaps surrealistic and philosophical novel that I had anticipated reading, this is a rather grim, more hard-boiled book dealing with prostitution, voyeurism and paedophilia in the Edinburgh seaside resort of Portobello. It’s not as downbeat as, say, Derek Raymond’s I Was Dora Suarez, but it is very far from the magical realist style of novels that normally invoke Blake, or even the slightly academic approach if somewhat grittier approach of Michael Dibdin’s 1995 crime novel, Dark Spectre.
So thoroughly were my expectations trounced that, on first reading, I found this novel extremely dissatisfying – although, aware that this was based on the strong initial bias on my part I reread it almost immediately and was more rewarded by Thompson’s thoughtful and dark explorations of desire in a small Scottish town. The novel begins with Blake called in to investigate the disappearance of a young woman, Louise Verver, an amnesiac who has married into a rich family. Discovering that she had recently begun to recover certain memories before her disappearance, as well as the fact that a local prostitute has attempted to blackmail her husband, Blake’s search takes him through brothels and nightclubs, leading him inevitably to perverse secrets hidden away from daily life in this small resort. At the same time, the investigation brings him once more into contact with his divorced wife, Olivia, and revives his own memories of their missing daughter.
An initial disconnect with me was the relevance of naming the protagonist William Blake. It is not that the name is insignificant – Blake’s “The Sick Rose” is cited at one point, while his ex-wife is writing a paper entitled Innocence and Experience in Eighteenth-Century Paintings of Children. Nonetheless, on my first reading I found myself far too concerned with the notion of whether the character of William Blake was offering some form of critique of the poet Blake (as, for example, in J. G. Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company) or operated in ignorance of any possible relation, a mere coincidence of names used to ironic effect (as in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man). Reading a second time, and not paying so much attention to “Will Blake” – as he prefers to define himself – enabled me to concentrate more of the features of the book itself. The final denouement is a little flat after preceding events, and on both occasions I found the intrigues around prostitution dispiriting, but this is precisely the point. Thompson’s spare writing style is elegant and controlled, with the unfolding psychology of Blake (whether Will or William) compelling.
Other reviewers have compared the novel to Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, and in unravelling the disintegration of a marriage following the disappearance of a child the comparison is an apposite one. Claims that it subverts the crime genre through surrealist touches, however, are too slight in my opinion to be sustained. The novel works better when viewed as a more conventional generic crime novel, though one that fits with a generation of crime writers such as Dibdin and Ian Rankin. Where Thompson does allow magical-realist moments to emerge (as in the style of Angela Carter, perhaps), the effect is less satisfying, as when Louise mysteriously turns up in a café with a copy of Songs of Innocence and of Experience which Blake picks up to read:
But as he read, the words kept disappearing until he was left with a blank page. He flicked through the rest of the book; all the pages were now blank. Only the title and author’s name on the front remained. He staggered out of the café, leaving the book on the table, and collapsed onto the pavement outside. (54)
This section can still be read in realist mode (Blake is subject to fits and this records his experiences of the scene), but the tendency in passages such as this was for me to read them as fairly heavy-handed symbolism for the content of the novel, with themes of memory and amnesia.
Where Blake’s presence does come alive in the novel, both as character in its pages and as a reference to the engraver and poet, is in the various sections of The Existential Detective that deal with desire:
There was something about depression, he thought, that if you were lucky enough to come out the other end, made you a kind of visionary – like drugs, it was mind-altering. It seemed to give another dimension to reality, a fuller version of it, as if previously the world had seemed a theatrical stage-show of colour. It forged you.
Desire returned with a vengeance, a ferocity. An abstract desire connected to pornography, rather than feeling. Most people lived life in disguise, concealing their own wants so as not to seem greedy. But we were all greedy in the end, greedy for different things. It was part of our humanity.
He was powerless over his desire. He would drive down to Leith harbour where he would see the prostitutes walking up and down the streets, some looking as young as twelve in the semi-darkness, their faces always turning towards the light of a car like moths towards a flame. (44)
The William (as opposed to Will) Blake invoked here is the author of the verse, “In a wife I would desire / What in whores is always found / The lineaments of Gratified desire” (E474), as well as the observer of the youthful harlots whose curse spread as a plague through London in the 1790s. Assuming that Will Blake is a comment on William, then the figure invoked in The Existential Detective is one both aware of the potential destructiveness as well as brilliance of his desire, a part of humanity that if ignored or controlled leads to the callous inhumanity of the cool, intellectual villain of Thompson’s novel, as well as the neglectful, dreary locale of the pub-cum-brothel, the Milton (a nod, of course, to not dissimilar themes in Blake’s epic poem).
I remain unconvinced by the neatness of the ending of The Existential Detective (though this is a personal foible with many crime novels, and I am far from the perfect audience for them). I did however, enjoy the subtlety with which all-too-male William Blake is supplanted in his investigations by two women who are, ultimately, much more effective than him. Thompson’s prose is also a great pleasure to read and if her visionary flights are not quite visionary enough for me, as a serious-minded contemplation of the routes of desire and how they affect our own perceptions this is a potent and effective novel.