The Drowned Detective
Neil Jordan (Bloomsbury 2016, Hardcover) 264 pages, £16.99 cover price
Given that the Irish writer and film director (The Crying Game, Mona Lisa et al) Neil Jordan's new novel The Drowned Detective is structured around a series of triangles large and small it is I suppose apt that a reader's perception will of it will likely rest on one of three quite different yet related opinions:
The Drowned Detective is an intelligently-written contemplation on the surreal aspects of modern life, whereby all the anchors of identity have come loose from their chains leaving us adrift.
Or, The Drowned Detective is a mischievous mash-up of the familiar features of romance novels, noir mystery fiction, and ghost stories.
Or, The Drowned Detective makes absolutely no goddam sense and why in hell did someone with Jordan's talent utterly waste it on this trivial exhibitionism?
Your mileage may vary. I'll save my own odometer reading for the end .
In some ways, The Drowned Detective is rather like every talented writer's first novel, or at least their first manuscript before an editor grabs it by the scruff of the neck and points it firmly in one direction. What I mean by that is new writers have an impulse to get it all in – every thought, experience or literary style that has ever occurred to their lives – shoved together into one masterpiece that comes out like a committee report written by camels. Except that doesn't quite work in this case as Neil Jordan is the exact opposite of a neophyte, so just what in blazes is going on here?
The Drowned Detective starts on reasonable and familiar ground, a known face peeking out coyly behind a stylish lacy veil of literariness. Jonathan is a detective, specifically a keen finder of missing persons, who has come with his wife Sarah and young daughter Jenny to an unidentified city in an unnamed former Soviet client state. Sarah, it is revealed, had a one-night stand with Jonathan's colleague Frank (or Ferenc, for all identity is a matter of perception) yet they are rather making the best of it. This is all standard issue romantic business, supported by Jordan's choice of three of the blandest possible names for his lead troika, and of course you can bet your bottom dollar that Jonathan too will be having it off with a mysterious woman because that's just what people in novels do. One good triangle deserves another.
Over that is laid the noir mystery whereby an elderly couple ask Jonathan's agency to locate their daughter Petra who vanished years earlier. Why they hadn't got around to seeking out a gumshoe before now is left unanswered, yet here again we readers don't ask such annoying questions. Shut up, buy the ticket and enjoy the ride.
The noir elements fill most of the first two-thirds or so of the novel. Jordan's a dab hand at that classic style, where people are named in pronouns and mrtaphors, while observations drop like safes filled with lead:
She looked like an ageing Marlene Dietrich and she knew it. All she was missing was the eye-patch, the one Dietrich wore as she gazed through a wisp of curling smoke at the sagging hulk that was Orson Welles. They were both old then, and almost past it, and they knew it, too. And Gertrude now fluffed her lips in that old movie way and took the Polaroid of little Petra between her old dry palms and began to rub it, as if to warm the girl who was no longer there.
You know, images as black and white as the very words upon the page. The Gertrude referred to above is a local psychic who asks Jonathan directly if she is a charlatan. Yes, she told Petra's parents that their daughter was still alive, but is she right? Shrug. The sounds of cello music rise like The Third Man Theme's zither in this ancient city riven with factions.
I have to end all plot description there as in order to complete this review properly I have to very carefully mention a spoiler and do so without totally giving away Jordan's narrative. It's not the fate of Petra, for surely you're not as thick as all that to have to spend more than fifteen seconds working it ut for yourself. Rather, two-thirds of the way through ... well it's rather like after a bit too much wine you decide to do some reading and, remembering you had last closed that James M. Cain (or was it Joanna Trollope?) novel at page 189, you pick it up and, oh shit, after four or five pages you realize this is the wrong book. There you are reading Stephen King and what in hell is this ghost doing here? The effect is the jarring equivalent of Woody Allen's most memorable short story, The Kugelmass Episode, which contains the classic passage, '"Who is this character on page 100? A bald Jew is kissing Madame Bovary?"'
So one has to ask the question, Is Neil Jordan making a profound statement about the falsity of genre and association, or is he just taking the piss out of us? The Drowned Detective is either the equivalent of The Winter's Tale – which I have often described as 'Shakespeare's Greatest Hits Album' – or the 1960's film version of Casino Royale which was a demolition derby thinly disguised as a movie. Well, damned if I know.
Well, damned if I know? That is not proper reviewer-y language and there goes my invitation to sit on esteemed judging panels. Then again, no such invitation was forthcoming and besides, any party where the word meta is used more than three times in an evening is no kind of party at all. The truth of the matter is, I simply can't recommend or dissuade you regarding reading The Drowned Detective. It really depends on how much you personaly enjoy thinking and having your comfortable reading experience suddenly jarred about.
Ultimately I did have a theory on The Drowned Detective whereby it all came clear and made me deeply appreciate the unspoken narrative of the work. To be fair to Neil Jordan, I shall share just one clue which I think is also fair as it is placed openly in the book, yet you might just miss it otherwise. Jonathan and Sarah go to therapy sessions for their messy marriage. From page 109, in Jonathan's first-person narration:
And where were we? The Viennese said, though calling him Viennese is disingenuous, but I'll keep doing so, if I may.
At that point I asked myself, from whom is permission sought? The name of this novel is The Drowned Detective. Be seeing you.