Friday 19 April 2019

The Cornwell code: thriller that could better Dan Brown

Fiction, The Serpent Papers by Jessica Cornwell. Quercus, hdbk, 480pp, €20.45

Jessica Cornwell
Jessica Cornwell
John Le Carre
Dan Brown
The Da Vinci Code
The Serpent Papers

Lucille Redmond

Dan Brown may have to move over - there's a new kid on the block writing the same kind of breathless, mystical thriller. Publishers were so excited by The Serpent Papers at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year that the debut author involved, Jessica Cornwell, got a six-figure deal for her planned trilogy, and the first book in the series is out now.

The Da Vinci Code, which made Brown one of the world's richest authors, is a story of a secret sect of martyrs and aristocrats persisting over the centuries, devoted to the Holy Grail - the bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Jessica Cornwell's The Serpent Papers reaches back through the millennia to another kind of conspiracy - a secret knowledge of women driven underground, tortured, their wisdom suppressed by evil men for thousands of years. These women are the bloodline of the Sibyls, the prophetesses of ancient Greece with an unerring gift for accurately foretelling the future.

There is an obvious similarity between Brown's and Cornwell's fictional worlds, with secret signs and messages and lots of gore in both. In Cornwell's book, an evil multinational company hunts down a book of knowledge and women are murdered in Barcelona, sacrificed to an unknown purpose, their skin carved with a cryptic alphabet, their tongues cut from their mouths.

The question is whether Cornwell's alchemical thriller (and the other two books to follow in the series) can even partly replicate the phenomenal success of Brown's global bestseller. If her name seems vaguely familiar it's because she is a granddaughter of David Cornwell, better known as John le Carré, author of the long-running conspiratorial spy series about Smiley's People.

The Serpent Papers is set mainly in Barcelona, but it starts in Mallorca - home, as fans of arcane Goddess religions will naturally know, of the Great Goddess Dea.

Anne Verco, a young and brilliant expert on medieval texts, is hired from her Mallorcan mountain home by the wealthy and powerful multinational arts group Picatrix to decode a vellum page stolen by English traveller Charles Leopold Ruthven in 1829. This page, now in the Bodleian library in Oxford, is a palimpsest, which is to say a page that's been scraped clean and overwritten - a common practice by thrifty scribes in the Middle Ages. When the surface is scraped away to make a palimpsest, the writing underneath is left like a ghost.

Ruthven and his successors could not read the writing underneath, but modern technology might be able to and Picatrix order the expert Verco to reveal the hidden text.

She finds drawings of tongueless women, with letters and symbols written on their bodies - drawings that are strangely familiar to her.

Picatrix have heard of a book in a monastery in Mallorca that may contain the clue to the mystery. They send Verco to get it and she promptly steals it from the monks. That night, the monastery burns down. The book Verco has stolen has the same drawings as the palimpsest page, concealed in the love letters of a Victorian writer - with his notes explaining the symbols and adding more - including pictures of a nightingale, symbol of the Sibyls.

Now Verco remembers where she has seen these symbols and letters before. They were carved into the bodies of three women who were murdered in 2003 in Barcelona, murders that were never solved. The tongues of these women had been cut out.

Verco takes the drawings to Barcelona and teams up with the former Inspector Fabregat, the detective who failed to find the murderer in 2003. Together, Verco and Fabregat re-investigate and discover that there were earlier murders, in 1859 and further back, with the same letters and symbols carved into the victims' bodies, and their tongues also cut out. The symbols, and perhaps the murders, go right back to the earliest European history, to the Cumaean Sibyl and her line of prophetesses who were the go-to girls of the Romans for all political strategy.

Ex-Inspector Fabregat is obsessed particularly with one murder - the killing of Barcelona's darling, the actress Natalia Hernandez. She was part of a theatre troupe and Fabregat is convinced one of these theatricals must be the murderer.

Hernandez was the daughter of an artist called Cristina Rossinyol - the name means 'nightingale' - who also may have been murdered. She died in a suspicious car crash years before. Rossinyol's golden pictures duplicated the images in the hidden pages - those same prophetic letters and symbols.

To find out more you'll have to read the story yourself. This isn't a book to dive into and race through - it's as deliciously complicated as the Catalan food Cornwell cites at every turn. You never know when you're going to be presented with a 17th-century American alchemist, a seductive actor drooling over Verco or another hidden book of revelations as the unlikely sleuths pursue their killer. Its dazzling complexity includes a series of different narrators and a plotline that wanders across geography and time.

Jessica Cornwell may not find the same market as Dan Brown - she's a better writer, for one thing, and her narrative is less plot-driven and more complicated. But her book will certainly become a cultish craze among all kinds of readers from radical feminists to modern-day mystics, and especially those who love sectish puzzles and mystery.

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