Reviewed by Harriet
First published in America in 2014, Andrew Mayne’s debut novel is just out in the UK. If I described this novel as ‘detective uses magic to solve crimes’, you might think it was just a copycat version of Ben Aaronovitch’s hugely successful Rivers of London series. But of course it’s not. While Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant uses his genuine magic powers to solve crimes with a supernatural element, Jessica Blackwood is an ex-illusionist, now FBI agent, whose job is to prove that the terrifyingly real-seeming magic element of a series of crimes is all done by fakery.
Jessica, who comes from a long line of celebrated stage magicians and was herself extremely famous, has for the past few years been quite happily taking a back seat in an FBI office, dealing with paperwork. But her history is well known at Quantico, the FBI headquarters, and when the Bureau is baffled and deeply worried by an extraordinary event, she is called in to help explain it. A girl, known to have been dead for two years, appears to have clawed her way out of her own grave.
This is no two-year-old corpse. This body is recently dead. She was probably alive this morning while I went jogging.
The grave marker behind her is her own, showing the dates of her birth and death. Yet in defiance of that, her apparently recently living body is thrust out of the earth, as if she had climbed out of her own grave.
This extraordinary event, apparently only solvable by believing in real magic, is only the first of what promises to become an increasingly extraordinary series of events. A plane, lost in the sea in WW2, appears on a beach in Florida, complete with the real pilot’s body in the cockpit. A girl, shown on the security cameras of the Empire State Building one minute, appears to have plummeted out of the sky in Times Square 30 seconds later, naked apart from white feathers seemingly sprouting from her back. No wonder the criminal mastermind behind all this is known as ‘the Angel Killer’, or, in the popular media, the Warlock. And the popular media is in a frenzy, as more and more people are convinced that these are miracles, sent by God to warn and punish a wicked world.
So it’s up to Jessica to show that these are simply brilliant illusions. She has to call up all her knowledge and experience and keep a step ahead (or at least a step just behind) the brilliant mind of the unknown person who has set up what are in fact a series of incredibly convincing tricks. She’s aided in this by the Bureau’s top computer geniuses, who manage to pull off some remarkable coups in the hacking line. These include a piece of hardware, hastily manufactured from a computer-game console, which can somehow manufacture a fake image on Skype, so that the person you are apparently having a conversation with is in fact someone quite different.
All this, you might say, just goes to show what an extraordinary world we are living in. Most of us will have seen and marvelled at magic shows on TV, and been convinced that there could not possibly be a rational explanation for what we’ve just seen. But as Mayne – himself a practising illusionist — shows, there always is. Of course the demonstration involves doing something that stage magicians deprecate – explaining the mechanics of how tricks work. But don’t worry – this won’t spoil your fun, and will be more than compensated for by the delights of this highly readable novel. Jessica is a most attractive character – conflicted, needless to say, as is pretty much required these days of fictional detectives, but highly intelligent and committed to justice. She is also surrounded by an intriguing supporting cast including her immediate FBI boss Dr Ailes, an African American mathematical genius, Chisholm, who can do anything on computers that you can imagine and lots you can’t, and last but by no means least the extraordinary Damian, Jessica’s ex-lover and long-time friend, who appears to be imbued with some supernatural abilities of his own. Nothing is explained about him and how he really functions, or indeed who he really is.
So, there’s lots to look forward to in the next novel, Name of the Devil, which is due out in the UK in June 2016. But I was so carried away by this one that I’ve actually managed to order a US edition, as the book was published there earlier this year. I don’t think could give a better recommendation than that.
Andrew Mayne, Angel Killer (Faber & Faber, 2015). 9780-571327607, 354pp., paperback original.