Magazine article The Spectator

Curiouser and Curiouser

Magazine article The Spectator

Curiouser and Curiouser

Article excerpt


I think Lawrence Block has it in for psychiatrists. In Hit Man, one of his best novels, the psychiatrist of the rather engaging, psychopathic hit man of the title tries to encourage him to murder his wife with unexpected, very funny results. In his recent book, Hope to Die (Orion, L16.99), psychiatry weaves in and out of the plot.

Matt Scudder, Lawrence Block's expoliceman and recovering alcoholic, becomes interested in the gruesome murder of Byrne and Susan Hollander, a welloff Manhattan couple, not least because they had been at the same benefit as he and his wife on the night of the murder. It looked as though they had returned home and surprised burglars in the house. Mrs Hollander had been tortured and raped before her throat was slit. Within days the police find the low-life perpetrators dead from gunshot wounds in an apartment. One of them had killed the other and then shot himself. As far as the police are concerned there is a satisfactory closure on a nasty crime. Then a student niece of Mrs Hollander asks for help through T. J., Matt's black sidekick, who is attending the same classes. She highlights some oddities about the case and points the finger at the Hollander's only daughter, Kristin. When Matt and T. J. start investigating, the case starts unravelling, becoming odder and odder.

For most of the novel Hope to Die is satisfyingly complex, but as it starts to climb to its dramatic conclusion it loses the plot, or anyway it lost me. If, however, you don't mind about things turning into hokum it's well worth entering Hope to Die's maze.

I was greatly relieved to read Michael Dibdin's And Then You Die (Faber, 16.99) even though it was very short. In Blood Rain, Didbin's last Aurelio Zen mystery, not only does Zen appear to be suffering a nervous breakdown but at the end the reader might well think he is dead. I was unable to bemoan this fact when reviewing it, as it would have given away too much of the plot. It now turns out that Zen survived the mafia blast.

And Then You Die takes the form of a strange recuperation. You meet Zen lying under an umbrella on the sand at Versilia. Beside him, although he does not know it, is a dead man. From then on as Zen wanders, in dreamlike oblivion, to and fro from the beach to restaurants to the apartment where he is staying, people drop dead around him. He is living under a pseudonym, in the utmost secrecy, as he is to be an important prosecution witness in the trial of two mafia bosses in America. In the second section, 'Islanda', Zen's aeroplane is diverted from America to Islanda when one of the passengers is discovered dead. There, Zen has a series of surreal experiences in which he seems to inhabit an uncomfortable parallel universe. This could be the consequence of head trauma from the bomb blast, or not. It is left to the reader to question but not decide. The third section, in which Zen returns to Rome and is offered bizarre promotion, then goes back to Versilia where he resolves the series of killings in a very unorthodox manner is even more surreal. Altogether And Then You Die is a very strange book, but I am happy to have Aurelio Zen back with us again.

John Colapinto's first novel About the Author (Fourth Estate, L10) is an unexpected, quite funny, sophisticated thriller. Written in the first person, it is the memoir of Cal Cunningham, a 23-year-old man who comes to New York to make his fortune as a novelist. …

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