Magazine article The Spectator

Seduced by the Scent of a Mystery

Magazine article The Spectator

Seduced by the Scent of a Mystery

Article excerpt

Seduced by the scent of a mystery VISITS FROM THE DROWNED GIRL by Steven Sherrill Canongate, £10.99, pp. 329, ISBN 1841955094

Visits from the Drowned Girl starts out with a gripping idea as old as crime fiction: the bystander. Benny Poteat climbs communications masts for a living. One day, from the top of such a mast out in the back-country, he looks down and sees a girl set up a video-camera on a tripod by the side of a river. The girl, as he watches, powerless to intervene, takes off all her clothes in front of the camera, walks unhesitatingly into the rushing floodwater, and disappears from sight.

When Benny climbs down the mast and reaches the site of her suicide, he finds alongside her clothes a rucksack full of videotapes, and a business card. He knows he should call the police. But somehow he doesn't. Instead, he takes the videos home and starts his own investigations. Benny is seduced by the ownership of a secret, by the scent of a mystery. And so is the reader.

The setting is the same hick America of Sherrill's previous novel, The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break - indeed, that novel's used-car seller Sweeny and its drive-in porno cinema both make welcome reappearances - but under surface similarities this is a rather different book.

That one of the novel's resources is a flea market is appropriate. Sherrill is not afraid of clutter. There's a superabundance of detail; a barrage of willed quirkiness that, particularly in the first half of the book, risks giving the impression that the props department for five unmade David Lynch films has simply been emptied over a trailer park in the American south.

We come across two characters with coins stuck, for no apparent reason, in their ears; we pass by the roadside a man shooting a turtle; there's an aquarium in an old school bus; there are midgets and monopedes; a child is conceived when a tornado blows a woman out of her bath and onto the erect penis of the man next door.

This stuff may irritate, and it may endear. Minotaur benefited from being more tethered to the quotidian (once you get over the fact that its lead character is an immortal half-man, half-bull demigod). But it isn't there by accident.

Steven Sherrill is a poet, and writes like one both at the level of the sentence and in the way he patterns his narrative. There are countless recurrences and parallels, and they are the more effective for being allowed to breathe without insistence on meaning: orphaned animals, blowjobs, repeated misfortunes involving policemen and feet, tornadoes, gang rape and, inevitably, fish. When the narrator insists at one point that 'coincidence, that sublime trickster', is guiding events, you have to laugh at the sheer bloody cheek of him. …

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