A Serpent Uncoiled
Hardcover, 416 pages, £12.99
Review by Sheila M. Merritt
Simon Spurrier unfurls serpentine suspense in A Serpent Uncoiled. A whiff of the supernatural snakes its way into this novel, which is primarily a detective yarn. The author plays to horror enthusiasts as well as mystery lovers; there are ample darkly disturbing scenes, and sublime situations of high tension and terror. Elements reminiscent of the films Chinatown and Se7en permeate the plot. Yet Spurrier’s voice is unique. Whether bent on shattering glass, or murmuring malevolently, an intrinsic scream lurks in his words.
Consider the vibrant verbiage of a chase sequence, in which protagonist Dan Shaper’s impressions are summed up: “In the wake of the adrenal storm, swaddled in the candyfloss of delusion, the pursuit assumed the surreality of a dream, a jarring montage of which somehow built to a smooth momentum, despite its fractured rhythm.” Shaper is a drug taking private eye with a shady past. The substance abuse trait is beautifully delineated in the passage, and also nicely conveyed in this quote: “The horror slunk back to its cell with an impish giggle, sedated but not sated, and in its place came a tangled splat of trippy delights and uncomplicated pleasures.” Post pill popping, the detective can better contain himself; but it’s hard to repress the memory of a corpse with its heart violently removed.
Dan becomes embroiled in a series of murders in which body parts are extracted from the victims. There is a connection to a revered spiritual guru and his fellow practitioners of the occult. As the cadaver count escalates, the arcane aspects of the case provide weird clues. An ambiguity about what is tentative or tangible pervades the tale, as hallucinatory images plague Shaper. Tormented by self-loathing and guilt, the sleuth is a haunted man. And one who finds clarity of thought as difficult to maintain as moral purpose. He has an uneasy ally in Detective Inspector Canton, who also has ethics issues: “Murky truths engulfed them both, smoggy pollutants from a past each had done everything in their power to escape. It was in that simple shared desire – to be a better person – that they’d found a touchstone far stronger than their many differences, one which had led to more than a few reluctant collaborations.”
The affinity between Dan and the inspector is an example of many well drawn alliances in the book. Bonds are formed based on an array of emotions and desires: Love, retribution, lust for domination, sense of family, all contribute to the motivations; however deadly they may be. Even when off drugs, poor deluded Shaper has a tough time retaining relationships – at least, the ones he craves.
Private eyes in fiction are loners; walking mean streets in cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and, regarding Dan Shaper, London. They see the seamy and the seedy in blackest noir, and it seems to be perpetually raining wherever they are. Writer Spurrier does a grand job with the moist moodiness: “The November drizzle had held off for the first time in three nights, but the air seemed choked regardless; a clammy ambient moisture caressing slick bricks and grey, leafless trees. On ledges through Soho, pigeons sulked in moronic bedragglement, while brave smokers lurked in smoggy palls outside steaming pubs, muttering at the indignity.”
It is easy to be enamored with the words of Simon Spurrier. In A Serpent Uncoiled, he cavorts with the conventions of a subgenre and infuses them with febrile feeling. His characters are indelible, the dialogue crisp, and the mix of mystery and horror is splendid and spellbinding.
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