House With No Doors by Jeff Noon

Reviewed by Annabel

Having been a fan of Jeff Noon’s cult spec fiction novels set in an alternate Manchester, I was surprised and delighted when his book Slow Motion Ghosts, a police procedural set in the early 1980s was published a couple of years ago. The crime involved the murder of a singer in a tribute band, and DI Henry Hobbes had a complicated case on his hands. With its rock’n’roll core, Slow Motion Ghosts became my favourite crime novel of recent years, so I hoped that Noon was planning more.

After a short prologue set during a pea-souper London fog in 1962, House With No Doors follows on from the case in Slow Motion Ghosts. It is later in 1981 when Hobbes is called from his West London office to a crime scene in leafy Richmond-upon-Thames. It’s a probable suicide: an old man is slumped at the kitchen table, pills, booze and razor blade beside him. Hobbes’ DS hasn’t called him in for that though— she shows him the lounge. A woman’s floral dress is laid out on the floor, in fact a complete outfit. There is a tear in the dress on the midriff area, sticky with blood.

Let’s see. Mr Graves collects together a woman’s outfit, lays it out on the floor. Rips the dress’.

It’s cut. I’m guessing with the razor blade‘.

‘OK. And then he slices into his forearm, and lets the blood fall on the dress’

‘Some time later he takes an overdose of sleeping pills, smokes a cigarette, and drinks a glass or two of vodka. Kills himself.’

Latimer nodded. ‘That’s the picture.’ […]

‘…But there are some other things you need to see. Upstairs.’ […]

Hobbes stopped where he was, a few steps into the room. Another dress was laid out on the bed, […]

‘It’s the same?’

‘The exact same design and size.’

‘Hmm.’ He stepped closer to the bed to inspect the torn area on the dress’s right-hand side, and the blood around the tear. No, it wasn’t blood.

‘It looks like red paint.’

When DS Latimer tells Hobbes there are at least a dozen more of the same dress hanging up and more laid out similarly around the house, all with the same red-stained tear, Hobbes realises that this is no ordinary suicide. When they go down into the cellar, it’s clear that the floor has been dug up and re-concreted. It’ll have to come up again—but what will they find?

What this second outing for DI Hobbes lacks in rock’n’roll, is more than made up for by the Graves family being one of the most dysfunctional that I’ve come across in a long time.

Leonard Graves had been living alone in Bridlemere, the large Edwardian villa that was the family home. Caroline, the nosy neighbour who popped in to look after him a bit found the body, but couldn’t tell the police much about the family apart from that Mrs Graves had been taken away to a home some years previously. She assumed the rare visitors were the Graves’ offspring, now middle-aged themselves but had never been introduced.

Eventually, they track down Nicholas Graves, ex film director, never a big success, now reduced to living a monastic life in a bedsit, to get permission to dig up the basement. There are two sisters, Rosamund and Camilla somewhere too, but who is Adeline, mentioned in Leonard’s suicide note?

This is one of those cases where the more Hobbes and his colleagues uncover, the more complicated things become, and this is an extremely twisted mystery. Every member of the Graves family has secrets, some family ones, some individual. Yet there’s something nagging at the back of Hobbes’ head, he’s seen the dress before somewhere, at some other time.

Paralleling the Graves mystery is a secondary strand about Hobbes’ own dysfunctional family. He is recently separated from his wife Glenda, but both are concerned for their teenaged son, Martin, who left home with his mother and seems to have taken up with the wrong sort of hippy squatters in Hackney Wick. Hobbes the father is far more emotional than Hobbes the thinking policeman, which adds another dimension to his personality.

Although some of Hobbes’ colleagues reappear and there is brief mention of the incident that made Hobbes an outcast inside his own profession for some time, detailed in the first book, House With No Doors does stand alone. Hobbes, with his slightly unconventional and intuitive policing methods, is the main man, his colleagues in this case there to do the legwork for him, remember this is the pre-technology explosion early 1980s. This may make them underdeveloped but gives more space for the Graves family’s convoluted, dark and repulsive family rituals to lead us up and down the garden path. Hobbes is such an interesting detective; maverick, yes, but in a different way to usual. He’s a promoter of social justice in this time where it was often lacking, and a magnetic creation.

Noon’s two detective novels featuring DI Hobbes are superb. I fervently hope there will be more.

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Annabel is one of the co-founders/editors of Shiny New Books, and very much likes a thinking detective with good intuition.

Jeff Noon, House With No Doors (Doubleday, 2021). 978-0857525635, 375 pp., hardback.

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