Wednesday, 19 October 2011

‘A Serpent Uncoiled’ – Simon Spurrier (Headline)

I’m a guy who’s lucky enough to have a large pile of books constantly on hand whenever I fancy something new to read; the best position to be in if you love reading like I do :o) These days, my reading list chops and changes depending on my mood (and if I’ve promised someone that I’ll read a particular book) and you’re likely to find that my choice of reading is either dependant on pot luck or what’s closest to hand (or is that just the same thing...?) Sometimes though, a review appears online that makes me abandon this haphazard approach and go straight for my own copy, wherever it might sit in the pile. A review like this one in fact.

I’d been feeling a little burnt out, on my usual fare, and fancied something a little different to read; the ‘Pornokitsch’ review came along at just the right time for me, promising a read that looked like it had plenty of meat on it but was perhaps a different flavour to what I’d normally pick up. I don’t read many crime novels (hardly any in fact) so that might explain why ‘A Serpent Uncoiled’ didn’t work for me in the same way that it did for others. I’m not sure that’s the whole reason though...

Dan Shaper used to work as a ‘fixer’ for one of London’s leading crime families until a catastrophic breakdown reduced him to his current state, working freelance and staving off the brewing insanity through an intuitively administered dose of internet purchased anti-psychotic medication. Shaper can’t let himself get too used to the medication (in case his body develops an immunity) so undergoes regular ‘detox’ sessions in the safety of his own flat, locked away from the demands of the outside world. His latest session is about to be interrupted though and the race is on to solve a case before his mind falls to pieces...
George Glass has just been told that he’s on a list of people being killed off one by one, seemingly random killings connected by one horrifying forensic detail. Glass cannot remember what he might have done to end up on such a list but that’s understandable, your mind play funny tricks when you’re three thousand years old... Shaper is the only person Glass can trust to solve this case but can Shaper trust his own failing mind to carry him over the finishing line...?

‘A Serpent Uncoiled’ sets itself up with an intriguing premise. From my own admittedly limited experience there’s usually some kind of race against time in books like this, generally revolving around having to solve the case before someone else dies, another valuable item is stolen and so on. It’s not often though that the guy pressed into solving the case finds himself in a race against time with himself. In ‘A Serpent Uncoiled’ the actual crimes being committed (grotesque as they are) find themselves playing second fiddle to the big question being posed. Dan Shaper is in no fit state to take the case on to begin with and it’s pushing him into places where he is most definitely not comfortable at all. How much longer can Shaper survive being pushed closer and closer towards the edge and will he go over...?

This is a premise that really caught my eye and Shaper is enough of a mixed up character (looking for redemption but doing it on the wrong side of the law) that you want to follow him through the plot and see how he does. You’re certainly left in no doubt what could happen if Shaper’s mental state goes past the point of no return.
Where things fell down for me was that it felt like Spurrier went a little too easy on Shaper and perhaps missed a chance to really push the boundaries and see how Shaper took it. Don’t get me wrong, there are some moments where you’re given a clear picture as to what is going on inside Shaper’s head (and I’m talking about the bit where Shaper comes out of an ‘episode’ to find that he is driving his van with no idea as to how he got there in the first place). Shaper’s hallucinations are also beautifully described (as much as maggots and rotting flesh can be ‘beautiful’...) and the nature of the story has you wondering whether certain of these hallucinations are in fact real. This device is a great way of getting you right into the plot and making you really think about what is going on.
For each of these moments though, there are at least two more where the ‘edge’ is either pushed back or you’re shown that Shaper’s head is actually better equipped to deal with it than we thought. To me, it almost felt like I’d been cheated a little. If, for the most part, Shaper can deal with his issues then it’s not really a race against time... is it? Any tension that had built up dropped away for me when I realised this and I settled into a routine of watching Shaper encounter the occasional mental curveball but recover nicely.

It’s a good job then that the question of the murders was a little more engaging. Spurrier comes up with a list of compelling reasons why any one of a number of people could be the killer and then leaves Shaper to try and find the one who actually did it. The beautiful thing is that Spurrier lets you know who the killer is within the first couple of chapters but it’s so subtly done that only hindsight will reveal it. The rest of the plot is a morass of dead ends and false clues that somehow all come together to form a seedy picture of London’s underworld, punctuated with the kind of violence that you would expect from such a setting. It’s a plot that flows very smoothly and is full of the kind of questions that keep you reading.

While there’s no doubt that ‘A Serpent Uncoiled’ kept a keen hold on my attention it didn’t quite match up to its own self-proclaimed intentions. It was a gripping read but, at the same time, a book that felt like it could have been a whole lot more. Having said that though, I’ll be keeping an eye open for more for Simon Spurrier.

Eight out of Ten

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