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Spurrier, Simon - 'A Serpent Uncoiled'
Paperback: 480 pages (Jan. 2012) Publisher: Headline ISBN: 0755335937

"The path that had brought Shaper to this most difficult-to-define niche had rarely strayed into the strip-lit sterility of "legal". He'd dabbled comfortably with dodginess since the age of sixteen: a snotty little East Ender with a broken nose, beating up posh kids to survive the school he'd been sent to when his dad died. In the years since then he'd seen more of the secret bruises beneath London's tourist-tattooed skin than almost anyone ..."

Private investigator Dan Shaper sits in his van and listens to a woman scream and moan. On a damp November London night he adjusts his earphones and continues his surveillance of the Hackney brothel. Someone is ripping off the special product that Mrs Swanson supplies to her ageing clientèle in order that they can satisfy their every need. And Mrs Swanson has hired Shaper to find out who. Some hours later, with the help of his friend Vince, the case is closed. With a bloody nose Shaper heads back to his flat to embark on his mandatory three-day detox from the chemical strait-jacket that enables him to function - free of the hallucinatory memories left to him by his days as "enforcer" to one of the East End's most notorious crime families. His only companion for this process will be Ziggy, an antisocial green iguana - but an iguana who exists in the real world. Darker by far is what is taking place in another part of London when a woman is murdered; her death accompanied by a nightmare mask of blue and gold, a chanted syllable as the knife cuts.

The next morning Shaper postpones his intended detox when he is offered one thousand pounds for an urgent but brief consultation with a potential client. He leaves so quickly for the meeting that he forgets his safety-net wallet of drugs, flung across the room the night before. Without that fortress of self-medication, Shaper's own Sickness arises, painting his client, Mr Glass, as a figure of light capable of stilling Shaper's inbuilt horrors. Someone has sent Mr Glass a package of newspaper clippings detailing recent deaths in the city. Included in the package is a sheet of paper with the words "You're on a list". When Shaper asks Glass if he knows any of the dead people, Glass explains that he can't remember. He doesn't remember anything. After all, he is three thousand years old. Hooked on the peace he gains in Glass' presence, Shaper is brought reluctantly into a case that will cause him to cross paths with the masked figure; a case steeped in esoteric magic and new age mysticism; a case entrenched in the gritty drug-steeped streets of London and interlaced with the affairs of Shaper's former "Family", the Coram Twins.

As I started to read A SERPENT UNCOILED, I thought of graphic novels. Something about it also feels cinematic, the writing implying close-ups and long shots. Then I find out that its author, Simon Spurrier, is a Film and Media School graduate and graphic novelist. Enough said. The book's narrative speed and structure is involving. The story is written in a language both fluent and vigorous. Spurrier obviously loves words. Sharply drawn characters, some almost exaggerated, and strong visual imagery carries the reader alongside Dan Shaper through the action which with Shaper's constant self-medication, can be surreal. Some of the scenes conjured up - and I do mean "conjured" - are dark, disjointed and fantastic. The pace of this book only dragged for me, ironically, when we arrive at the violent denouement which I found a bit prolonged. But that's just a niggle.

The notion of the hard-boiled private eye lives on in A SERPENT UNCOILED. In fact Shaper's first encounter with Mr Glass, with Shaper walking down rows of exotic aquaria within an opulent but fusty Holland Park mansion, reminded me of Chandler's Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep meeting his rich elderly client in the orchid hothouse of his mansion. Even Spurrier's scenario of potentially fraudulent new age therapy and its wealthy clientele finds a parallel in Chandler's Farewell My Lovely. But Shaper is a somewhat deconstructed Marlowe, more violent, more haunted, and sustained by a mix of uppers and downers in his pocket as opposed to a bottle of whiskey in the desk drawer. Nevertheless I enjoyed this dark, "off the wall" crime thriller which is Spurrier's second book for publisher Headline but the first, I think, with Dan Shaper as protagonist. I definitely want to read more from Simon Spurrier.

Lynn Harvey, England
March 2012

Lynn blogs at
Little Grey Doll.

More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 8/04/2012 10:06