Saturday 24 February 2018

Books: Neil Jordan returns to his first love with The Drowned Detective

Fiction: The Drowned Detective, Neil Jordan, Bloomsbury, hdbk, 272 pages, €25.50

Bookish beginnings: Neil Jordan's first literary offering preceded his film career by six years. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Bookish beginnings: Neil Jordan's first literary offering preceded his film career by six years. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
The Drowned Detective

John Boland

The director's latest novel manages to implicate the reader in the lives of his characters.

Given his fame as a filmmaker, it's easy to forget that Neil Jordan's first artistic calling was literary and his story collection, Night in Tunisia, preceded his 1982 debut movie, Angel, by six years.

That was originally published by the Irish Writers' Co-Operative, which the 26-year-old had co-founded, and it was followed in 1980 by his first novel, The Past. Other novels have followed over the years, but movies have consumed most of his time and energies, even if the results haven't always been satisfying.

For every interestingly intimate film he's made (Angel, Mona Lisa, The Miracle, The Crying Game, The Butcher Boy), there have been misfires (We're No Angels, In Dreams, The Brave One, The Good Thief) that seemed like director-for-hire assignments unworthy of his talents and that led critic David Thomson to reflect that "after a dozen films, Neil Jordan seemed as unsettled as a beginner".

Indeed, although the now 65-year-old's enthusiasm for film has led him to create, write and direct The Borgias for television and to embark on further movie projects, it's hard not to feel that literary fiction has always been his great love. I recall that when I and co-judge Kate O'Toole chose his superb 2011 novel Mistaken as the Kerry Group Book of the Year (he'd previously won the same award for his 2004 novel Shade), his boyish pleasure on accepting the prize at Listowel Writers' Week was that of someone for whom it really mattered.

Mistaken, which concerns a Dubliner on the northside who has a lookalike on the southside, is, among other things, a haunting meditation on personal identity and a love letter to the capital city in which the Sligo-born author grew up - indeed, its evocation of Dublin from the 1960s onwards is so vivid, both in its details and mood, that it recalls Joyce's similar feel for the metropolis half a century earlier.

But Jordan is as restless in his prose fiction as David Thomson suggested of his movies and in his new novel we find English-born narrator Jonathan in a very different city, though again so vividly realised that you feel you've been there yourself and know its every street, alleyway and building.

This unnamed city is in eastern Europe and has never recovered from its oppressive Soviet past - indeed, we're told of one of its outlying villages that "one could imagine Zhukov's tanks ploughing through it, years ago. And Putin's, doing the same, some day soon".

That's the book's most directly political observation, though from the outset Jordan conjures up the constant unease among the city's populace as Pussy Riot-style protesters confront heavily armed police forces. However, private detective Jonathan's main concerns are more personal, especially his marriage to archaeologist Sarah, which has come under strain due to her affair with Jonathan's colleague Frank.

This marriage in all its frailty is beautifully evoked as Jonathan puts further strain on it through his encounter with a young woman whose life he saves when she jumps from a bridge into the city's main river. A budding young cellist (the Bach suites recur throughout as a constant motif), she takes him back to her apartment and he becomes haunted both by her fragility and by her elusiveness.

He's haunted, too, by the assignment he has undertaken at the novel's outset to locate Petra, who was last seen by her parents two decades earlier when she was a little girl. To this end, he consults a psychic called Gertrude who has a vision of her "in a small room she cannot leave". Could it be a brothel? And Jonathan's love for his own young daughter, Jenny, intensifies his compulsion to find Petra.

Jonathan is a congenial narrator and the scenes of his domestic life with Sarah and Jenny are tenderly observed, though he harbours a darker side, too.

"I am employed to obsess about all sorts of things," he tells the therapist to whom he and Sarah have gone in a bid to save their marriage, though his obsessiveness is not just confined to work, and jealousy is among these obsessions.

Jordan has always been fascinated by transgressive demons and he has a leaning towards the mysterious and even occult, too, as we discover two-thirds of the way through The Drowned Detective. And so, while we learn the truth about Petra and also about the young cellist (the author delivering on the conventions of his detective story), other mysteries remain tantalising, not least about little Jenny, her imaginary friends, and her uncanny awareness of things that should be beyond her knowledge.

Some readers may have problems with this shift into the supernatural, but the author negotiates it so adroitly that I, for one, was persuaded by its haunting suggestiveness.

"Can you make sense of it for me?" Jonathan asks Gertrude late in the proceedings, her answer being, "Some things don't make sense, Jonathan".

Yet, imaginatively they do. Gertrude may confess that she's a "charlatan" rather than a psychic, but we nonetheless accept she can intuit things that others can't. More crucially, we care about these people that Jordan has created.

"It was only love after all," Jonathan reflects of the predicament in which himself, Sarah and Frank find themselves, "no one had died, the crime was the familiar one and the only victims were ourselves".

But a large part of the book's achievement is that the author has made us so implicated in the lives and frailties of his characters that they seem as real to us as real people - and just as ultimately unknowable, too.

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