At the Harrogate Festival, I had a very brief but pleasant conversation with S.J.Bolton and her agent, and this prompted me to take a look at Now You See Me, for which Bolton reached the short-list for the Theakston's prize for best crime novel of the year. It's worth noting, I think, how often a personal encounter, however fleeting, will make one more interested in an author's work. I guess it's one of the reasons why publishers are so keen on having their authors attend events!
On the face of it, Now You See Me is one of those books that we discussed a while back on this blog - a gruesome serial killer thriller, in which a number of women are tortured and mutilated in a variety of unpleasant ways, with the severed body parts graphically described. There are many such books around these days. Thankfully, there is more to the novel than that, and I was struck by Bolton's skilful approach to writing a book of this kind.
Most of the story is told in the first person by Lacey Flint, a young woman cop who is plainly an unreliable narrator - although her type of unreliability is very different from Tony's in the masterly Julian Barnes novel I reviewed yesterday. Lacey's chapters are interspersed with various scenes in which an un-named killer torments one luckless woman after another. All the chapters are short, and so are most of the paragraphs, another stylistic device increasingly common in best-sellers. The crimes, and the amputations of body parts, appear to be modelled on the killings of Jack the Ripper. So far, so formulaic. But the story is told at a great pace, and, more importantly, with genuine attention to atmosphere.
Bolton began her career writing books with rural settings, but here she conveys the dark and seamy side of London very successfully. For me, it was this atmospheric quality, not just the twisty nature of the plot, that really lifted the book out of the ordinary so that it bears comparison with the best-sellers of Val McDermid. McDermid is a highly intelligent writer who knows exactly what she is doing with each book she writes, and so is Bolton. This book is at the other end of the spectrum from the book I read immediately afterwards - the new novel by Louise Welsh, a much quieter story. But it's one of the marvellous features of the crime genre that it encompasses such very different types of novel, and that's one of the things I love about it.
A couple of quibbles. One part of the plot proceeds on the assumption that hot-shot lawyers for someone accused of a very serious crime of violence would be allowed by the police - and would themselves be willing, despite the risk to their own careers - to meet and intimidate the victim within hours of the alleged crime. I found this impossible to believe, as did another astonished lawyer I discussed it with. The way this incident was explained away made me suspect the author realised she was on shaky ground. Much more trivially, Lacey keeps getting the lyric of her favourite song slightly wrong, which was a bit odd; maybe the author isn't as keen on the song as her character..
Yet all this shows is that, however hard one labours over a piece of writing, it's almost inevitable that slips will be made (believe me, I make my fair share.) What matters is that, overall, the book works in the way the author intended. And in this case, it certainly does.