Books: A Splosher and a Dauber ; Matthew Sweet Delights in a Devilishly Clever Homage to Wilkie Collins, John Ruskin and JMW Turner

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The Dark Clue

By James Wilson

FABER pounds 10.99

A sequel to The Woman in White. Sounds a terrible idea, doesn't it? You can imagine the massed membership of the Wilkie Collins Society dropping their laudanum bottles in horror. ("The bloated body of Count Isidor Ottavio Baldassare Fosco rose from the slab, revived by a miraculous bon-bon smuggled into the mortuary by one of his faithful white mice...") Mercifully, James Wilson's The Dark Clue is more a case of Wide Sargasso Sea than H: The Story of Heathcliff's Journey Back to Wuthering Heights. It is a devilishly clever book, for, rather than producing a straight pastiche, Wilson has written an exploration of the common aesthetic and biographical ground between Collins, John Ruskin and JMW Turner, and disguised it as 19th-century noir.

Not that he lacks a talent for mimicry: readers who know Collins will find the novel full of familiar incidents, tics and locutions: a comic boating trip echoes a scene of riverside picnicking in Armadale (1866); a discourse on the nature of colour continues a debate about vision and insight from the pages of Poor Miss Finch (1872); a reference to a veiled cat-lover alludes to a weird event in The Two Destinies (1876), in which a Shetland crofter with a morbid sensitivity to light plucks at the harp as her tabbies dance about on their hind legs; an S&M element in Wilson's plot recalls The Law and the Lady (1875), and the cranky sadism of Miserrimus Dexter, a legless dwarf who torments his transvestite servant by binding her wrists and offering her fairy cakes.

The Dark Clue cannot afford to be quite so wacky, as it brings fictional characters into contact with real historical figures. After a worrying outburst of Lionel Bartish detail ("the clatter of horses; the stench of their ordure; a crossing-sweeper nearly knocked down by a brushmaker's wagon; a woman crying `Stunning oranges!'"), the protagonists of The Woman in White, Marian Halcombe (one of the few heroines in British fiction to sport a luxuriant moustache) and Walter Hartright (an arriviste drawing- master left considerably richer by his triumph over the book's villains), are commissioned by Lady Elizabeth Eastlake to write a biography of the late JMW Turner. …