Slow Motion Ghosts by Jeff Noon

Reviewed by Annabel

I first discovered Jeff Noon’s weird take on our world when his debut novel Vurt was picked up by a major publisher after being an indie original that went on to win the Arthur C Clarke Award in 1994. In Vurt, its sequel Pollen, prequel Nymphomation, and Automated Alice which shares some characters but links the world of Vurt to that of Lewis Carroll, he created an alternate Manchester, one in which a hallucinogenic drug called Vurt makes dreams, myths and alternate realities really ‘real’. In these books, Noon built in some rich intertextual references, from Shakespeare to Greek mythology to Jimi Hendrix. Since these novels, I’ve not managed to keep up with Noon’s output, until now. When I heard he had written a crime thriller, a police procedural no less, I had to read it, hoping for something a little off-kilter, non-standard fare.

I’m delighted to say that Slow Motion Ghosts met all my expectations. While all the standard elements are present with their feet firmly rooted in good old-fashioned detective work, the central detective is a different kind of maverick than usual and the crimes he investigates are steeped in music and a kind of alternative mythology. There are hints of The Secret History, and strong echoes of James O’Barr’s wonderful graphic novel The Crow, but presiding over it all are the ghosts of Ziggy Stardust, The Joker – Heath Ledger’s version perhaps – and all those dead rock stars, Jimi, Janis, Jim.

It is telling that Noon has set his novel in 1981. This means no internet, no CCTV; the telephone and a pair of good shoes are the detective’s best friends. The prologue begins in April, on the main night of the Brixton riots (dubbed ‘Bloody Saturday’ by Time magazine). We meet DI Hobbes as his group is deployed to clear a street so emergency vehicles can get through. It’s not working though, and Hobbes goes to rescue a black woman, caught in the middle, when he’s hit on the head. Luckily, Hobbes is then himself saved by colleague Charlie Jenkes:

‘She’s safe. Don’t worry.’

Jenkes pressed his palm against Hobbe’s head, against the cut. And they knelt together, the two of them, as close as they’d ever been as partners. It was a simple act of comradeship. But when he looked directly at Detective Inspector Jenkes’s face – dirty, streaked with soot and sweat, teeth gritted – he saw only madness there, a hatred that burned as wildly and fervently as any of the rioters they were facing that night.

Hobbes should’ve guessed right then that something was going to go wrong.

It’s an interesting beginning. Four months later, Hobbes has been reassigned to another borough, but what he did has followed him to his new posting. He will have ‘to prove himself all over again at the age of forty-four’. 

A body has been called in and Hobbes will lead. He goes into the house alone after the doctor and forensics have been. Brendan Clarke, twenty-six, is dead on the bed. His face has been carved: an X on his forehead, his mouth slit to have a gaping grin, a piece of paper stuffed in it, a tarot card of the Fool in his shirt pocket, but it was the wound in his neck from which he bled out. The room is a shrine to Lucas Bell, a singer from the glam rock era of the 1970s.

Bell had been famous for his ‘King Lost’ mask which turns out to be how poor Brendan’s face ends up. Bell had committed suicide, and a cult had formed around him after his death. It turns out Brendan’s band, Monsoon Monsoon, named for a Bell lyric, did a tribute concert the night before Clarke died, in which they performed the King Lost album in its entirety, with Brendan wearing a mask.

This is where it starts to get very complicated, as the past and the present turn out to be closely interlinked. Hobbes is forced to delve deep into Bell’s life and the personality cult that grew up around him, to discover that many of those around him back then are still part of his mythos now. Of particular interest is Simone Paige, a music critic, who knew Brendan and was the one who’d found his body after attending the gig the night before. She had been very close to Lucas too.

The day after is the seventh anniversary of Bell’s death, and all the fans go to Witch Haven Field – where Bell killed himself in his car. Hobbes must take his investigation down there – convinced that Brendan Clarke’s murderer will be at the field that day.

The past and present continue to intertwine, and as Hobbes begins to find out more about Lucas Bell, a murky past involving a secret society begins to emerge. Society members were known by codenames, and ‘Lady Minerva’ was in charge. Hobbes must decode the names to discover what really happened to Lucas Bell, and how that links to the death of Brendan Clarke – who is only the first to die.

Noon has created a wonderful detective in Hobbes, and although the DI is Henry rather than Thomas, there is something of the 17th-century philosopher’s Leviathan about him. DI Hobbes shares his namesake’s concerns over social contract models – the legitimacy of the authority of the state over the individual – something he believes went very wrong in Brixton. Hobbes is a good man, and he gradually begins to win the respect of his new colleagues; from PC Barlow, who is seconded to his squad, to WPC Palmer down in Hastings, a young black woman police officer – a rarity in those days. The Gene-Hunt-a-like DC Fairfax proves a harder nut to crack, and the story of what happened to Charlie Jenkes is always in the background.

The echoes of glam rock in the world Noon creates took me right back to 1973, the year in which the Steve Miller Band had a hit with The Joker – just one of many musical milestones in that year (on the cover Miller wears a mask). Jim Morrison died in 1971, but I could feel the Lizard King’s influence on Lucas Bell. 1981 by contrast was a year of much leaner musical fare, and we spend most of our time looking inwards and back to 1973.

Noon’s writing is thoughtful but urgent, it was so hard to put this book down once I’d started. Hobbes is on every page. We may not learn much about his own life, but we do get inside his mind, which goes through every emotion you could think of, while trying to remain on top of the complicated underworld he has uncovered. I do hope that Noon will bring his unique take on the world to write another case for DI Hobbes, for this first one was superb!

Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Jeff Noon, Slow Motion Ghosts (Doubleday, 2019) ISBN 978-0857525611, 384 pp., hardback.

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