Again, busy, and so another review from the back catalogue, and with Nicholas Royle as featured author in the Case Notes section of Black Static #29 this ‘golden oldie’ from The Third Alternative #38 seems apposite:-
ANTWERP: NICHOLAS ROYLE
Serpent’s Tail pb, 288pp, £10
Cult film director Johnny Vos is on location in Belgium, making a bio pic about the surrealist artist Paul Delvaux. His method involves trying to get inside the painter’s mind by creating living tableaux of his most famous pictures, but a serial killer is abducting the prostitutes Vos is using as extras. Their bodies turn up mutilated and wrapped in video tape of the films of Belgian director Harry Kumel. Connected to this is the so-called Last House on the Left, a building occupied by prostitutes and fitted up with web cams so that voyeurs can observe their activities 24/7. Of particular concern is the anonymous Jan, a customer who appears to be obsessed with the beautiful Danuta. In town to interview Vos is film critic Frank Warner, who is asked to report on the murders when they begin, a job complicated by the presence of his girlfriend. When Sian disappears, perhaps the killer’s latest victim, the crimes become of personal interest to Warner, who is suspicious of Vos, but he can prove nothing and the Belgian police seem indifferent, so the film critic must take matters into his own hands.
Though self-contained this cleverly crafted novel is also in part a sequel to Royle’s previous book, The Director’s Cut, giving rise to one or two non sequitirs in the plot, and picks up on the writer’s personal concerns with the vision of the painter Delvaux, the magic of film and the fascination that abandoned buildings exercise over the human psyche. Implicit throughout is how art and the medium of film, or more purely the making of fantasies, can inform every aspect of our lives, with some characters whose entire existence is acted out in the camera’s glare. For the people who walk the streets of Royle’s Antwerp such matters are not just intellectual abstractions but of vital concern, as for example with Frank and Sian; the problems in their relationship are encapsulated in differing responses to the work of Johnny Vos, who Frank admires while Sian regards him as a misogynist. The two of them are so obviously in love but at the same time kept distant from each other by inconsequential things so that it takes her abduction to clarify their depth of feeling for each other and, as elsewhere, the deftness with which such subtle nuances of personality are captured is a hallmark of Royle’s work. The other characters are just as finely drawn, from Danuta who is making the best of a life she was forced into through to Vos whose obsession with Delvaux is explained by an incident in early adulthood. Of particular note is the depiction of the unnamed killer, given a second person voice to chilling effect, so that we can never be sure he isn’t one of the named characters, the story of an unhappy childhood and perhaps inevitable growth into the paradigm monster, whose actions seem bizarre to everyone else but conform to some internal logic of his own. Few killers in the annals of crime fiction combine the mundane and the bizarre to such telling effect, making the likes of Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates seem almost two-dimensional by comparison.
Another joy of the book is Royle’s assured sense of atmosphere, the skill with which he brings to life the abandoned buildings and isolated places that are the stage set on which his cast act out the drama, so that the reader can sense the decay and the hint of an emptiness at the heart of modern civilisation itself, perhaps mirrored in the ineptitude of the Belgian police and the moral nullity of the Last House on the Left. The only weak note is struck by the book’s inconclusive ending, which on the one hand seems wholly appropriate, but on the other, in filmic terms, it’s almost as if Royle wants to keep his options open as regards a further sequel. However this is only a quibble and should not detract from the overwhelming merit of this complex and absorbing novel, a work of ambition that will reward several readings.